City staff members are developing a proposal to allocate $500,000 of Evanston’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to provide solar panels for low-income residents, matching a congressional grant awarded to the city earlier this year.

Evanston’s Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator Cara Pratt updated the city’s Utilities Commission on the pilot program, named the Accessible Solar Program, during its meeting Friday, Aug. 12. The program will provide grants to low-income homeowners for installing solar panels on their homes. By doing this, the city aims to provide equitable access to renewable energy as it moves to reach 100% renewable energy by 2030, a primary target outlined in Evanston’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan.

Pratt told the commission that the program is still in early development, and said she expects it to launch in 2023.

“We haven’t completely figured out if we’re fully subsidizing, or doing a combination of full subsidies and partial subsidies,” Pratt said. “We haven’t figured out any of the details for the program yet.”

The ARPA allocation would satisfy the match requirement of the $500,000 of congressionally directed spending secured for the program by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Pratt said this grant did not initially come in with many conditions.

“I would assume that they would give us more restrictions further down the line, but so far it’s just been on the match,” Pratt said. “They haven’t even been particularly strict with the deadline for expending the amount of money.”

Congressionally directed spending, known informally as “earmarks,” made a return to Congress this year after a 2011 moratorium on the practice was lifted. Essentially, it allows federal lawmakers to request direct funding for specific projects in their district to be included in the annual federal spending bill.

The Fiscal Year 2022 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, signed by President Joe Biden on March 15, allocated more than $9 billion of its $1.5 trillion in spending to such earmarks. Other local examples include another $500,000 earmark by Durbin for a Northwestern University rapid in-home lead test pilot program and a $450,000 earmark by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-9th District) directed to YWCA Evanston/North Shore for a new domestic violence shelter.

Pratt said the city’s original request was for the solar program’s full $1 million budget, and was submitted in 2021 prior to her hiring. When the request came back half-fulfilled and requiring a match, she said staff worked to confirm whether the Accessible Solar Program would fit the rules for ARPA funds.

“Internally, it has been confirmed that we can use ARPA funding for that match,” Pratt said. “Of course, City Council would also have to approve that match, so that’s a process that we’re working on.”

Alex Harrison

Alex Harrison joins the RoundTable for the summer in between his undergraduate and graduate studies at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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