Michelle Moore of clean energy non-profit Groundswell moderated the panel and started by asking the group to think of low-income solar beyond solar panels, and instead see solar power as economic empowerment. Two examples of communities that have moved the needle on low-income solar were Elevate Energy of Illinois and Holy Cross Energy of Colorado.
Elevate Energy, an organization that helps to promote energy efficiency in Illinois, was a key player in implementing the Illinois Solar for All community solar program. Vito Grezco, senior manager of solar programs, stressed the importance of creative financing to make solar realistic for those without stellar credit scores. He says tools like PACE make it easier but still carry financial burdens for lower-income communities. Moore added to the financing point, saying lower-income communities actually bear most of the burden of the current electrical system. She said the poorest 20% of America is typically paying 10% or more of their entire household income for electricity.
So where does change happen? Moore stressed that while solar is a great job generator and power solution, electricity is a highly regulated industry dependent on the trifecta of federal, state and local policy. And diverse voices often aren’t brought to the table. Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, said as an example that Mississippi has never had an African American on its Public Utility Commission even though the state is 37% black. Without diverse representation, the status quo will likely remain.
Another place change can happen is within communities themselves. Holy Cross Energy, an electric cooperative in Colorado, has members from wealthy towns like Aspen and Vail as well as rural, low-income areas. Lisa Reed, power supply analyst, said what the membership has in common is the value of bringing clean energy to their communities. The membership voted to create a fund for renewable energy, where they pay a small amount extra to go toward solar and energy efficiency. All members can choose to buy solar energy from a community solar farm, and members who pay for it get credit on their bills.
All the speakers agreed that building low-income solar programs requires both talking to communities to educate them about solar and listening to a communities’ needs. Patterson said a common misconception is that low-income communities are being bought off by fossil fuel companies. In reality, the fossil fuel industry is good at pushing false narratives about the high cost of solar, purposefully discouraging communities from going green.
Moore ended the discussion by challenging everyone in the room to think about the industry they’re helping to lead, and the transformational opportunities it can hold for low-income populations. Whether through a presentation at a rotary club, public school, or in the presence of political or energy industry members, Moore said it’s important to take time to respectfully engage with low-income neighbors. She said the success of the solar industry should be “measured in terms of people.”