“Energy justice is a priority for NAACP, and community solar is an important first step to ensuring equitable access to clean energy,” said Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho/Nevada/Utah, in a press release.
Even as Washington pivots from stopping climate change to “bringing back” fossil fuels like coal, solar power is on the rise, and some organizations are finding ways to expand access into underserved communities.
Solar installers can help too.
“A solar company may be very much on board with advancing renewable portfolio standards, fighting for distributed generation, fighting against fixed charges,” said Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP’s environmental and climate justice program. “We want to see [installers] adding on to that agenda, also including pushing for their advocacy agenda, pushing for local hire provisions, pushing for disadvantaged business enterprise provisions, so that there’s those economic justice components to energy policy.”
Patterson created a document outlining steps installers can take to advance equity, inclusion and leadership in the solar industry and shared it with SEIA. The document includes strategies to inform communities about solar, use creative financing options, expand community-owned solar and more. Patterson said SEIA has used her document to begin to lay out priorities for a new critical communities initiative.
Inclusive financing options
John Farrell, director of the energy democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a non-profit organization that advocates for sustainable community development, said installers can do their part to help achieve energy justice by providing financing for solar panels that doesn’t require a credit score.
“Something like half of Americans have a subprime credit score, so it’d be very challenging for them to get financing to install solar or to buy a share of a community solar garden,” Farrell said. But, he understands that financing flexibility may not be feasible for some installers. “They’re usually at the mercy of the bank or whoever else is providing their money. But it’s something that they can work on and work toward.”
GTM Research recently partnered with PowerScout to release a household income and solar adoption report. In it, they found that 70% of solar households are middle-income, between $45,000 and $150,000. Households with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000 were the biggest demographic for solar rooftops.
Low-income households are underrepresented, but they are still on the map thanks to former President Barack Obama’s Clean Energy Savings for All Americans Initiative, which set a goal to install 1 GW of new solar for low and moderate-income households by 2020. GTM Research reports that the United States is on its way to meet that 1-GW goal, and that the non-profit installer GRID Alternatives has been instrumental in the progress.
The organization has installed seven community solar gardens so far, ranging from 26 kW to 150 kW. GRID’s website says it’s “developing the first community solar arrays in the country that exclusively benefit underserved communities, as well as collaborating with for-profit community solar developers to help ensure that the energy generated by their community solar systems are accessible to all.”
Location is key
Another way Farrell thinks installers can help increase access to solar is by being conscientious about where they install panels.
“To me, one of the concepts of energy justice is this notion that we are remedying past ills in our energy system,” Farrell said. Most “polluting energy generation systems” were installed in or near low-income communities of color, he explained. By installing solar on rooftops and in solar gardens in these communities, “instead of suffering the bad effects of hosting energy generation, they’re now reaping the benefits of it, whether that’s from the actual output from the solar array or from the energy savings that might accrue.”
The NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice program website says, “Race is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country.”
Community-owned solar is one way to change the course. GRID Alternatives and the Colorado Energy Office have partnered with five utilities to offer community solar at no out-of-pocket cost to Colorado families that meet their income qualifications. The qualifications require residents to be at or below 80% of the local Area Median Income, and to reside in the utility service area where GRID offers community solar. GRID’s previous projects have served from 8 to 45 households in their respective service territories.
Patterson urges installers to be proactive and aggressive in bringing diversity to both solar education and work training programs by specifically reaching out to groups that represent communities of color, like local Urban Leagues.
One impediment to expanding access may be the information gap. Traditionally, utilities advertise new renewable or efficiency options as an insert in a bill.
“It’s the kind of thing that a middle class white person has time to sit around and read, [while] somebody who holds down two jobs and whatnot has barely enough time to pay their bill,” Farrell said.
Even if they do have time to read it, they may have already self-screened themselves. People with low income may think they could never afford those programs, even if incentives like 0% loans are offered.
“I think it’s a double whammy where they either don’t have the information or if they do, they assume that with their financial needs they are not going to be eligible,” Farrell said.
GRID Alternatives works diligently at educating communities that may have never heard of solar power. Adewale OgunBadejo works as the group’s workforce development manager and is committed to giving underserved communities a stake in the renewable revolution. He compares the growth of solar to the internet boom in the 1990s.
“People in traditionally underserved communities did not have access until it was too late, so they weren’t able to capitalize off [the internet boom],” OgunBadejo said. “There are still communities that are not even aware that there’s a green revolution going on.”
GRID Alternatives wants to change that. OgunBadejo said the company’s outreach and education work is twofold: They go into traditionally underserved communities and install solar through solar homes programs, then once curiosity is piqued, OgunBadejo and his team can get to work educating the community on the benefits of solar.
In addition to education, the group works with community colleges and vocational job training programs to provide hands-on solar installation training.
The tricky part comes after the education and training. Solar companies must be willing to hire diverse workers.
“Just because we’re training them, doesn’t mean that they’re going to get hired,” OgunBadejo said.
GRID Alternatives does its part to encourage diversity in the solar workforce through initiatives like the Women in Solar Initiative, Realizing an Inclusive Solar Economy (RISE) and Troops to Solar Initiative.
“I think that companies have to kind of take that same step, and say, ‘Hey, we’re open to hiring people with different backgrounds,’” OgunBadejo said.
In addition to inclusive training practices, Patterson said solar companies should be sure their structure includes a pathway to leadership opportunities for women and people of color.
Patterson is hopeful about the opportunity to include low-income communities and communities of color in the renewable energy revolution. Since solar support is lacking on the national level, she knows progress will happen mostly within the states.
“This is why solar companies are going to have such a critical role,” Patterson said. “Because you can’t count on the policies to necessarily support this.”
As the solar industry continues to smash records for job creation, solar companies can do their part to make sure low-income and underserved communities get a piece of that pie, whether that’s through jobs or solar installations in their communities.
“I hope that we continue to move forward as a country in terms of implementing things like renewables, but we also want to make sure it’s really equitable for everybody,” OgunBadejo said.