By Hannah Goetz
Federal financial aid to help families struggling to bear the economic impacts of coronavirus is set to soon expire.
Even if a new round of assistance is authorized, communities like Chelsea hit hard by the pandemic will continue to feel the strains of high unemployment and costs that federal aid just doesn’t cover.
For Chelsea households, that means finding new ways to save money on everyday things. Hundreds of families have discovered some relief in a new program with old neighborhood ties.
Tonia Hines, a 64-year-old Chelsea resident, received a zero dollar electric bill this month thanks to JOE-4-SUN—an innovative solar program that provides deep energy savings to income-qualified families in Massachusetts and New York.
“I think for people like me that are on disability or are low-income, this helps out a lot,” said Hines. “You know when I got the bill I was like ‘Okay, how much is this gonna be?’ And I was gonna have to figure out how to budget my money. But then, once I saw it, I was like ‘Oh my God, this is such a relief!’”
Hines and 625 other households have unlocked access to previously costly green energy at a 50% discount because a closed landfill in Ashland is now home to a 5.8-megawatt low-income community solar farm. The new project, built and owned by Boston-based Citizens Energy Corporation, offers subscribers about $300 in annual electricity savings and the largest discount on solar energy in the state.
Citizens Energy was founded by former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II in 1979 to make life’s basic needs more affordable. The energy non-profit started off by using global petroleum deals to finance heating oil assistance to needy families in the midst of skyrocketing energy prices. One of the company’s first partners to reach eligible households was the Chelsea-based agency Community Action Programs Inter-City.
Robert Repucci, CAPIC’s recently retired executive director, worked side-by-side with Joe and the Citizens team for four decades to bring affordable heating oil to families in need. The relationship with CAPIC under his successor, Richelle Cromwell, has continued with JOE-4-SUN, which was announced last year at a Revere event with Repucci, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo at his side.
Hines found out about the affordable green energy program through CAPIC as have residents of Revere and Winthrop, communities also served by the agency for over 50 years.
“I’m glad that this client was able to get a discounted rate by participating in the JOE-4-SUN program,” said Cromwell, adding that she “hopes that we will see more residents benefit from this program.”
For close to 40 years, Citizens was known for its JOE-4-OIL slogan: “No one should be left out in the cold.”
“Now, we’re fighting to make sure that no one is left in the dark,” said Kennedy, as Citizens becomes a household name in Massachusetts again for a different kind of program—one that puts the benefits of green energy to work for families in need.
Hines, a Boston native, said she had considered trying to lower the cost of electricity for her apartment with solar energy in the past, but, as a renter, thought “it was only for people who own their homes.”
Access to renewable energy has long been restricted to wealthy homeowners, but, through this cutting-edge program, Hines is joining a new wave of renters building equity in both their futures and those of their families.
The ground-mounted array in Ashland, built with almost 16,000 panels, is one of six arrays comprising the company’s innovative JOE-4-SUN program. Citizens, a major solar developer nationally and the largest builder of community solar arrays, uses energy from its projects to provide discount green power to Massachusetts, New York and California families in need.
“We have always been a different kind of energy company,” said Kennedy, who has dedicated his career to fighting industry norms and economic inequality. “But now, more than ever, it is important that we work with seasoned community advocates, like CAPIC, to ensure that our most vulnerable populations will not be left in the dark.”
Hines, proud to call the Hub her home, says she considers the Kennedy legacy to be something that makes her home especially noteworthy.
“I’m really glad that the Kennedy’s—Joe Kennedy and his family—are still helping people in Boston,” said Hines, fondly recalling meeting Joe’s uncle, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy outside Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester. “They’re always willing to help people no matter what color they are, no matter what their income is—and from what I can tell, they are always honest about what they are fighting for.”
While there is little the average person can do about COVID itself, Hines says there is a little something that her Chelsea neighbors can do to cut costs and limit the strain on their wallets.
“This is really good for people that are struggling,” explained Hines. “Now we are not gonna have to worry about that one bill.”