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Multnomah County’s considering a new way to assist low-income homeowners struggling to meet utility bill payments: Going solar.

A new study by the county’s Office of Sustainability has found that while lower-income households use less power, the percentage of their income spent on utility bills is significantly higher than their wealthier counterparts.

Solar power energy could help curb these high energy bills, the study found, but prohibitive start-up fees have likely kept low-income households from making the switch.

According to the study, the majority of household solar power installations take place in Portland’s wealthier neighborhoods.“Energy is an environmental justice issue. Energy poverty is real,” said Tim Lynch, senior policy analyst at the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability. Lynch presented the study to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners this morning.

The study found that 150 multi-family buildings and 196 single-family homes would be able to significantly reduce their energy bills if they installed solar panels. Those 150 multi-family buildings include about 2,700 apartments. The study estimates multi-family buildings may be able to reduce their monthly bills by 47 percent on average, and single family homes could save an average of 58 percent.

Multnomah County Office of Sustainability

So why aren’t more low-income homeowners buying into solar power?

Solar comes with a significant up-front cost, and there are few financial assistance programs that can help lower-income people pay for it. As for renters, it's difficult to guarantee that the savings from solar pass onto the tenants’ utility bills. And if they do, that leaves little incentive for a landlord to install solar in the first place.

The study did offer a couple examples of successful solar installations, like the city installing solar panels on the Stark Streets Apartments—a new low-income housing partially funded by the Portland Housing Bureau. According to the study, this saves $150,000 in energy costs.

Though there was no vote related to the presentation, some of the commissioners seemed very excited about the possibility of funding solar projects. Commissioner Lori Stegmann was particularly excited by the idea of providing solar electricity to mobile homes and "addressing moderate income folks” with similar projects.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury also said she was excited about the prospect. “there are hurdles but I know the desire for those outcomes is there,” she said