The Potential for Solar to Power Low-Income, Minority Communities

Guest Blog | July 23, 2015 | Energy Justice, Energy Policy, Solar

This guest blog by Marvin Smith with Future 500 was originally posted here

Solar power is on the rise faster than a Steph Curry shot. Not only is its adoption exceeding predictions, but the demand for third-party solar and net metering is so wide-ranging that it has broken down the political divides we’ve grown accustomed to. Taking the form of the Green Tea Coalition and the oddest of bedfellows in Florida and North Carolina, stakeholders are uniting around the environmental and economic benefits of rooftop solar. Despite all this positive momentum in the solar industry however, minorities and women remain woefully underrepresented. This lack of representation hurts both vested community-based groups and the solar industry.

Solar Support Across Party Lines

Solar energy spans party lines. Liberals and Conservatives love solar, and so do a growing number of minority and low-income communities. The combined determination of these groups has led to the emergence of a message: “Solar energy is bountiful, bipartisan, and beneficial to impoverished communities.”

But this message hasn’t always been so clear. Electric utilities in particular, have led opposition to third party solar and net metering because of the threat it represents to their business model. Nevertheless, an increasing number of utilities accept that times are changing and are doing their best to change with them. With the concurrent Elon Musk-led investment in groundbreaking battery technology, the antiquated model of centralized power generation will continue to shift towards a more hybridized, decentralized model.

The group that stands to gain the most from the growth of solar energy generation remains low-income, minority communities. For starters, air pollution disproportionally affects minorities. The disparate NO2 concentration in minority communities somehow rivals the steadily trending income inequality. Yup, black and Latino families are more likely to be poor, at least partly due to the fact that they can’t get jobs.

Though far from a silver bullet, solar can provide clean air and economic growth. The flawed and trumpeted “solar hurts the poor” argument operates under the assumption that the poor won’t have access to rooftop solar, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Furthermore, solar has the potential to serve as a gateway for minorities into the increasingly homogenous STEM workforce. The expansion of solar energy in low-income communities is actually part of the solution to the myriad of economic, environmental, and social challenges they face.

Clean Energy Working for All

According to the most recent National Solar Jobs Census, the solar industry added workers “at a rate nearly 20 times faster than the overall economy [and] industry employment has grown by 86% in the past five years, resulting in nearly 80,000 domestic living-wage jobs.” New jobs are great; especially clean ones! However, it’s important to ensure that economic recovery doesn’t leave anyone behind, and the solar industry is lagging in that regard. Growing cohorts of NGOs understand this, and are leading the charge to ensure that the solar industry is as diverse as the constituents they aim to serve.

Oakland-based nonprofit Grid Alternatives, for example, has partnered with SunEdison to launch the RISE (Realizing an Inclusive Solar Economy) initiative, to “provide women and members of underserved communities with solar job training and job placement.” Not only is Grid Alternatives working to diversify the solar industry, but they are also seeking to create a professional path within the renewable energy industry for those on the margins of society. For those individuals, it’s important to have the opportunity to embark on a skilled trade with a stable income. Solar can provide this opportunity.

An added bonus is that solar is STEM at its sexiest. The concept of converting sunlight to electrons that power homes, electronics, and cars can get students excited about science in a way that mitochondria and balanced chemical equations cannot. If black and Latino students see their families working in the green economy, it will make solar more accessible and they’ll be more apt to pursue a career in the high-paying STEM field.

Renewable Energy Potential

Solar energy is pretty sweet! The science behind photovoltaic cells is basically magic and the price per watt continues to drop faster than drunken bros at the Preakness toilet run. Sure it might seem more expensive than more carbon-intensive alternatives if you discount externalities, but ultimately it reduces greenhouse gas emissions in a way few other energy sources can, and is continually becoming more efficient.

Furthermore, by ensuring that the solar industry is diverse, both within its workforce and socioeconomically, it’s more likely that these communities can avoid ‘solar deserts’ (where impoverished neighborhoods are deprived of clean energy) as the technology becomes more prevalent.

Some argue that solar is too expensive and a ‘luxury’ from which only the affluent can benefit, but that outlook is rapidly changing. Companies like Boston-based start-up Yeloha use creative community solar models to provide affordable, scalable energy. Yeloha provides free panels, installation, and a reduced electricity bill with a sharing model that benefits both hosts and partners. GoSolar.LA operates using a similar model. These companies can’t change the fact that not all geographies are created equal with regards to solar potential, but they can make renewable energy accessible to communities that need it the most.

Lighting the Way

As we turn our collective attention to the global fight against climate change it’s important we don’t lose sight of the opportunities our developing low fossil fuel diet is creating. The steady expansion of Solar power alone cannot meet the global (or even domestic) energy demand, but it does present an opportunity to cleanly power our homes and benefit frequently overlooked communities eager to improve their lives and local economies. In the way one can find third generation oilmen in Texas, it’d be incredible to realize a future in which the solar industry has a diverse set of multigenerational solarmen (and women!). That’s a win-win we can all get excited about.

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