CALEXICO — Calexico resident Julio Noriega had initially become aware of the Citizens Energy Solar Homes Program when he noticed solar panels being installed on a neighbor’s rooftop more than two years ago.
After making some initial inquiries, as well as going through the application process and waiting period, Noriega was eventually able to take advantage of the free solar panels and the reduced electricity bills that come with them.
As someone who is on a fixed income, and burdened by ever-increasing medical and living expenses, the lower electricity bills make a considerable difference, he said.
“When my electricity bill got lower, I was able to spend those savings on medication,” the 75-year-old retiree said in Spanish.
Prior to having his rooftop solar system installed, it was common for Noriega to pay about $150 a month on electricity during the height of summer. That figure now stands at about $75, he said.
In the three years that Citizens Energy Corp.’s solar homes program has been operational, the company has been able to provide free rooftop solar arrays to about 421 low-income households in the Imperial Valley.
The program is made possible by the Boston, Mass.-based company’s ownership stake in the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line that delivers high-voltage power from the Valley to San Diego County and which is operated by San Diego Gas & Electric.
In exchange for having financed part of the construction of the transmission line, Citizens Energy receives a payment from the transmission of power through the line, said Brian O’Connor, vice president for public affairs.
In keeping with the philanthropic thinking of its founder Joseph P. Kennedy II, the company uses its revenue to help vulnerable populations throughout the nation and world, O’Connor said.
“We’re committed to using half our profits from transmission operations to help low-income ratepayers in the Valley,” he said.
The solar homes program provides eligible homeowners with free rooftop solar systems, as well as a 20-year lease on the panels, which includes a parts and maintenance warranty.
To date, the company has been able to install about 150 rooftop solar systems a year here in the Valley, up from about 100 when it initially launched in 2013.
“It’s no surprise there is more demand,” O’Connor said. “Low-income families are the last to benefit from the solar revolution.”
About one in four of those systems can be found in Calexico, with the rest spread throughout the Valley’s cities and unincorporated areas. Program participants can expect about a 40 to 50 percent drop in their electricity bills as a result of the rooftop solar systems. “This is a way for us to bring the benefits of renewable energy to households without costing them a dime,” he said.
On average, a rooftop solar system will generate about 5,400 kilowatt-hours per year. An average household will use anywhere between 10,000 to 12,000 kilowatt-hours per year, according to information provided by Citizens Energy.
The company also makes a serious effort to use local contractors for the installation of the solar array systems. There are some requirements in order for homeowners to be eligible, including owning a south-facing home, having a roof in good condition and meeting energy efficiency standards in the home.
Typically, a year or more may pass from the time that a homeowner applies to the program, to the time that the panels are installed on their home.
Calexico resident Miguel Jimenez said that he had first heard about the solar homes program from a friend in 2012 and had suggested to his mother that they apply.
Had the program not been offered to the public at no charge, he said that it would’ve been impossible for their household to apply, since neither he nor his mother currently work and have come to depend on the assistance of other family members.
For the past year, the household has seen significant savings in its electricity bill, something that he has been sure to tell friends and acquaintances about.
Based on the fact that the program doesn’t charge participants and the savings that are realized, Jimenez said he would expect more people to take advantage of the program.
“There are some (friends) that have shown interest, but they don’t follow through,” Jimenez said in Spanish.
The program is expected to be in place until the end of 2042, the length that the agreement over the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line with SDG&E lasts.
At the end of the 20-year lease, homeowners have the option of having the rooftop solar panels removed at no cost, extending the contract at their own expense, or leaving the system in place as it is, according to information provided by Citizens Energy.
Applications to the program can be requested by calling 855-GO-SUN-GO (855-467-8646) or by emailing email@example.com