Climate

Renewable Energy Progress Eclipsing Capitol Hill

Washington, D.C. is bringing solar to low-income communities.

Two distinct groups share the sidewalks of our nation’s capital. The first group has been tasked with promoting the welfare of the American public. Its members earn upwards of $170,000 a year. The second group has an annual per capita income of $45,000 and faces some of the steepest barriers to economic advancement. The first group inhabits Washington — seat of the federal government. Think marble-columned buildings, lobbyists, interns, and partisan gridlock. The second group lives in the District, which is battling high unemployment and stubbornly persistent poverty rates. Can you guess which is doing more to fight climate change?

In Washington, lawmakers may have fallen short on global warming, but in the District, local leaders are tackling carbon pollution with stunning ambition. In 2013, the District of Columbia announced its aim of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2032. As part of this effort, city officials launched an initiative to install solar panels on the roofs of 130 low-income households by the end of this month. Aside from limiting carbon pollution, the plan delivers two huge benefits to District residents.

First, the program is giving a sizable boost to the city’s burgeoning solar industry. “We use solar installers that are local businesses that are based here in the District,” said Dr. Taresa Lawrence, Deputy Director of D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment. The low-income solar initiative is spurring the growth of small businesses. Solar companies are hiring and training local workers, helping newly-employed installers learn the skills they need to build careers in the fast-growing field.

Solar installers, in turn, are giving working families a much-needed break on energy costs. Low- and middle-income households devote a larger portion of their paycheck to utility bills. Shrinking energy bills can significantly improve quality of life. “Our low-income families have to make tough choices,” said Lawrence. “They’re choosing between buying food, buying school supplies, buying medicine… Anything the District of Columbia can do to defray those costs — that’s a win for the District and that’s a win for the household.”

Historically, solar panels have been status symbols for an energy-conscious elite, a way for wealthy families to help power their homes or heat their pools in April. The high up-front cost of solar usually constrains access to households of considerable means. Thus, while solar panels can deliver enormous savings in the long-term, working-class families have often been largely unable to reap the benefits because they cannot mount the initial financial hurdle. According to George Washington University’s Solar Institute, “households earning less than $40,000 a year make up 40 percent of all U.S. homes, and yet they account for less than five percent of all solar installations.”

Earlier this summer, the White House announced a new plan to expand access to solar power to low- and middle-income families. The initiative relies in large part on partnerships with solar companies, NGOs, and local governments. In Washington, legislative paralysis has left the federal government with a limited number of tools for dealing with carbon pollution. Since entering office and directing billions to renewable energy in the successful Recovery Act, President Obama has largely addressed climate mitigation through existing authority granted to regulate greenhouse gases in the Clean Air Act — though this has been challenged, unsuccessfully, in Congress and the courts for years.

In the District, city leaders are taking bold steps to fight climate change with the tools they have. Last month, a small D.C. regulatory board halted a multi-state, $6.8 billion proposed merger between utility giants Exelon and Pepco because it could have interfered with the progress D.C. wanted to make with renewable energy generation.

This actually isn’t just a DC-based development. It’s actually indicative of a larger trend.

Increasingly, cities will become the focal point for climate action. Today, cities account for more than 70 percent of all energy-related carbon emissions, a number that is set to rise as people around the world migrate to urban centers. Local leaders have every incentive to tackle climate change. According to a new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, embracing clean energy and energy efficiency “can generate stronger growth and job creation, alleviate poverty and reduce investment costs, as well as improve quality of life through lower air pollution and traffic congestion.”

The District is a testament to this fact. City leaders aren’t waiting for Washington to come around. As D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a recent address, “Now — more than ever — is a critical time for the District to show leadership in energy for our residents and businesses.”

Jeremy Deaton writes about the science, policy, and politics of climate and energy for Nexus Media. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.