Solar for All: Memphis Solar Shines On African American Communities

Guest Blog | November 7, 2014 | Energy Policy, Solar
Worker finishing up a solar panel at the Sharp Manufacturing in Memphis. Sharp closed its solar production line in early 2014, in part due to TVA's lack of solar incentives.

Natalie Mims, SACE Energy Efficiency Director, and Sandra Upchurch, SACE Energy Organizer in Memphis also contributed to this post.

Just like BBQ, there is plenty of sunshine to go around in Memphis. Unlike BBQ, however, sunshine is free and capturing it to create electricity benefits everyone.  Memphis is one of the few minority majority large cities in the South and has historically been plagued by poverty.  A growing mass of information shows that clean energy – renewable energy and energy efficiency – benefit low-income and African American communities.  A clean energy economy can offer solutions to the poverty problem in Memphis and we can start building this economy by encouraging the growth of local solar energy.

BRIDGES solar panels and roof

Memphis is home to several shining examples of solar benefiting African American and low-income communities.  We wanted to bring attention to these projects, since it appears that some have overlooked examples like these when making spurious claims that clean energy does not benefit, and even negatively impacts, minority communities.

Ten years ago, BRIDGES, a Memphis based nonprofit that helps promote local community and racial cohesion, installed 176 solar panels on the roof of their building.  This system is capable of providing 30 kW of clean energy. These panels have helped to keep BRIDGES’ utility bills low, enabling the group to use their funding to unite and inspire the youth of Memphis.

Also in 2004, Power Source Plus (a West TN solar installation company), Carnes Elementary School (a public school serving mostly African American families) and Memphis Light Gas and Water (MLGW) partnered up to install a 27 kW system on the roof of the school.  By installing solar, Carnes Elementary has been able to save significant money on its electricity bills and focus its resources on its students.  What’s more, the children at Carnes Elementary have the rare opportunity to learn about the benefits of solar generation first-hand and witness the true benefits of investments in a clean energy economy.

Power Source Plus employees installing solar panels on Carnes Elementary.


In 2012, Memphis leaders announced development of 34 new three-bedroom, single-family homes with roof-top solar in the historically African-American Frayser neighborhood. These homes will be the first phase of the Wolf River Bluffs project, which aims to build 300 energy efficient homes to serve low-income families in Frayser.  The new homes will be an important upgrade for a neighborhood struggling with declining property values, said Steve Lockwood, executive director of the Frayser Community Development Corp.

Artists performing outside the Memphis Slim house

Most recently, the Memphis Slim Collaboratory installed solar panels on its roof in September 2014. The Collaboratory is a resurrection of local legend Memphis Slim’s old house and is located in a low-income, African American community in Memphis. The Memphis Slim Collaboratory offers local artists and musicians a venue to collaborate, rehearse and record music and also provides office space to local community development groups, like Community Lift.

Ashley Cash, Community Development Director for Community LIFT,  stated they “knew that with so many musicians using the recording studio, the building would use an enormous amount of energy.  Therefore, having the solar panels installed would be very cost effective.”  Ms. Cash added that “as far as whether or not African American homes can also benefit from solar, the answer is YES.  I believe all homes can benefit from the reduced energy costs that solar power provides and that these savings are most important for low-income communities.”

As you can see from these examples, solar does benefit low-income, minority communities.  SACE will continue to work to bring more clean, affordable energy to Memphis and will continue to serve as a strong advocate of solar, especially in low-income communities.

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