Sunshine for All: Closing the Solar Energy Gap

Solar Panels on the roof of a house along Lovat Rd in Beaufort Park in Fulton Maryland. (Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Sunshine for All: Closing the Solar Energy Gap

Proven strategies can make solar power available to lower income people.

Low-and moderate-income households bear heavy housing and energy cost burdens. In the United States, people with low incomes spend about three times more of their income on energy than those with higher incomes.

Moreover, these households are much less likely to reap the benefits of converting to solar power. But now, a study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has identified three approaches that effectively expand the availability of rooftop solar to people in lower income brackets.

Energy, housing, health, and education systems; and "systems that encourage or discourage environmental degradation" all "touch racial justice. So in order to start breaking down racial disparities in solar, I think we need to broaden our lens."

"For too long, the solar industry and policymakers have adopted a 'rising tide lifts all boats' approach to solar policy and incentives," says Melanie Santiago-Mosier, managing director of the access and equity program of the nonprofit Vote Solar. "We know that approach doesn't work, and the study does a nice job of calling that out."

People with lower incomes can face multiple roadblocks to adopting solar, including upfront cash constraints, renting instead of owning, language barriers, structural racism, and other cultural and societal impediments. Racial disparities in solar adoption can also occur independently of economic factors, as a 2019 study found.

The Berkeley lab has tracked the solar market for years. For this investigation, researchers used solar adoption and household income data, drawing on records of more than one million rooftop installations on single family homes in eighteen states between 2010 and 2018.

Researchers found that strategies which specifically targeted low- and moderate-income households were effective in boosting their rooftop solar adoption. These approaches reduce upfront costs for these households through rebates and other financial incentives. For example, PosiGen, an equity-focused solar business referenced by the authors, centers low-income families through leasing options without credit or income requirements. On the other hand, broad and generic financial strategies that don't focus on low- and moderate-income households were not found to be effective in increasing income equity in rooftop solar.

But because this research investigated rooftop solar installations in single-family homes, many low-and moderate-income households were not included. Community or shared solar, a strategy not covered in the research, reaches some renters and/or people with lower incomes. Within community solar programs, multiple people or entities own or lease shares in a solar facility, and each participant then receives credits on their energy bill.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, by the third quarter of 2020, forty states had at least one community solar project. While most early community solar programs were employed by businesses, government agencies, and higher-income households, a movement to equitize these programs is growing, including in cities like New York and New Orleans.

Galen Barbose, a co-author of the Berkeley lab study, says that in the future, it "would be useful to evaluate how successful [community solar] has been in accelerating solar adoption" by low- and moderate-income households.

While this Berkeley lab study focuses on income levels, the authors acknowledge solar adoption inequity "has been identified as an emerging energy justice issue." Barbose isn't aware of any work at the lab "focused specifically on racial demographics," but he says future additions of its annual solar adoption report "may include some trends related to racial or ethnic backgrounds of solar adopters."

Because of institutional racism and the related racial wealth gap in the United States, income inequality is intrinsically linked to racial inequality. This makes rooftop solar adoption rates for low-and moderate-income households a racial issue, but racial solar inequities cut through economic strata.

In 2019, researchers found, "Black and Hispanic majority census tracts show, on average, significantly less rooftop PV [photovoltaics] installed," than areas of similar incomes but without a majority demographic or with a white majority.

The racial divide in solar adoption has been tied to many factors, like a predominantly white solar industry and environmental sector. Santiago-Mosier notes that solar is not a stand-alone entity; it is "part of an energy system that is intertwined with a number of other systems that are racist at their core."

She says energy, housing, health, and education systems; and "systems that encourage or discourage environmental degradation" all "touch racial justice. So in order to start breaking down racial disparities in solar, I think we need to broaden our lens."

While she sees climate and environmental justice activists taking this approach, she says she is not seeing it enough in the solar industry. "At Vote Solar, we are trying to make our lens clearer in this way but, I'll admit, we still have much to learn."

And Santiago-Mosier mentions that while solar-training programs often seek to bring underserved communities into solar installer positions, it's important to also support them in the realms of sales, marketing, engineering, finance, legal, real estate, and entrepreneurship. She says a growing movement for communities of color to own and operate their own solar arrays represents an opportunity for these communities to build wealth.

"One example of a community-driven, community-owned community solar project is the Sunset Park project in Brooklyn, NY," she says. According to itswebsite, it is New York City's "first community solar project owned and operated by a cooperative for the benefit of local residents and businesses." One of its founding partners is UPROSE, Brooklyn's oldest Latinx community-based organization.

In a growing number of cities, front-line activists are leading the charge for local ownership of renewable energy.

Serenity Soular in Philadelphia is a grassroots group developing a worker-owned solar installation cooperative. Kristal Hansley is hailed as the first Black woman to launch a solar company, WeSolar, which is dedicated to local and community solar for people of color and/or those with low-incomes in Baltimore.

SOL-ution New Mexico supports energy sovereignty for Tribes and Pueblos, among other goals. It's a coalition led by Mayane Barudin, an Indigenous woman who also serves as Vote Solar's interior west director and Tribal liaison.

Soulardarity in Detroit formed in order to relight city streets with solar after DTE Energy repossessed local streetlights. It is associated with Avalon Village, an urban eco-village under development in Highland Park--a project envisioned and led by a local Black woman named Shamayim 'Shu' Harris.

Despite many challenges, Santiago-Mosier sees hopeful developments within the solar industry.

Amid contemporary racial justice movements, she says "[There] seems to be more deliberate attention on the need to diversify the industry and more willingness to work on solar policies that will benefit communities of color, low-income communities and other historically marginalized groups. But it takes will to sustain deliberate action for the long-term. I hope that the will is there."

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