Solar power has been criticized for helping the wealthy and punishing the poor. Some groups — largely, it should be noted, utilities and advocacy groups funded by fossil fuel interests — say only affluent people can afford solar, leaving less-affluent people to pay more than their share for the grid.
But it turns out that in the battle to transition to a cleaner, more networked grid, low-income communities are the next big front.
There is no question that distributed solar changes the way we get and pay for our electricity. It is a disruptive technology — something that can change the fundamental way business is done. That in and of itself creates resistance, but when talking about who can afford solar, it’s worth looking at a parallel example.
When personal computers were introduced three decades ago, the first people to buy them were from affluent households, large companies, and schools — just like solar, computers started as something tapped by companies and high-income “early adopters.” Only as prices went down and infrastructure adjusted did computers become widespread. Ultimately, they ushered in the Internet Era. The change simultaneously devastated the Postal Service, one of America’s longest-lasting businesses, and impacted the way millions do business.
Still, no one made the argument that society should stifle computer usage because low-income households couldn’t afford them. In fact, the parallel argument for why solar access isn’t fair has been pretty thoroughly debunked, but the fact remains that it is easier for some people and companies to “go solar” than others.
In order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, more people need to go solar, and more of those people need to be low-income, advocates say. And this week, some of those advocates gathered in Washington, D.C. to release a new policy guide on how to make solar available to every American. The guide makes the argument for why everyone needs access to solar and shows how initiatives are working across the country.
Solar ownership in low-income communities is an investment
“Perversely, those who argue that solar is not serving the low-income communities are working to make the economics worse, which is the opposite of what you want to do,” said Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, a California-based advocacy group.
As solar becomes more widespread, costs go down for everyone, Browning told ThinkProgress. And, in fact, the cost of a residential solar installation has been cut nearly in half since 2010, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
There is a clear business advantage to tapping into low-income communities. According to recent census results, half the country is considered low income or poor, earning less than $45,000 per household. The solar industry, which continues to grow rapidly, will eventually need to add those homes to its roster. But solar is also a win-win, advocates say. Not only does solar clean the grid for everyone — which has its own, significant benefits — it lowers household bills and adds value.
“A very powerful motivation for low-income solar is that you are creating an asset within a low-income community that is generating wealth. That wealth can help leverage additional economic activity,” Amit Ronen, director of the George Washington University’s Solar Institute, told ThinkProgress.
If all low-income communities went solar, they would see an added $17.9 billion to $23.3 billion of electricity value, the GW Solar Institute found. The installation and operation would add an additional $18.7 billion annually of local economic output — some 138,376 jobs, the researchers found.
“When you’re talking about rooftop solar, you are also talking about local jobs. It takes a local person to install it,” Ronen said.
Changing the business model
But there are some basic impediments to getting every low-income community to go solar. The challenge is in the financing. For starters, many of the financing programs for rooftop solar are only available to people who own a home.
Homeowners generally pay for their electricity all the same way: They have a single meter; the utility reads it every month and charges the homeowner a set amount. Renters or apartment-dwellers have any number of set-ups. They may have their own meter, but they may split charges with other homes. In some cases, the landlord may pay the bill, passing the charges on as rent. Moreover, not everyone has ownership or access to a rooftop or lawn suitable for a solar installation.
Instead, the challenge is about shifting money. And for low-income communities, that takes power and influence.
“Our vision is that everybody gets access to solar,” Browning said. He pointed to companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook, which have all pledged to use 100 percent renewable energy.
“They are able to walk into a state and ask the governor and the utility commission and hammer out an agreement,” something low-income communities can’t do, Browning said. “What’s good for the Google is good for the gander.”
It’s on states now
The solar industry is in what’s known as a post-ITC extension world. For years, the solar industry has been fighting to keep its 30 percent solar Investment Tax Credit. Proponents argue that it helps level the playing field against fossil fuel industries that have had entrenched tax breaks for more than a century. Over the winter, the industry got what it was asking for. The ITC was extended for the next few years before it will be gradually stepped down, avoiding the shock of an abrupt end.
The ITC is a federal program, and it has been widely credited with helping reduce solar costs and scale up the industry. But a quick look at solar installation numbers makes it clear that state policies are significant drivers in local solar adoption.
“That’s where the battle has really always been,” Browning said. “The ITC is a turbo charge, but a turbo charge doesn’t help if you don’t have an engine on the road.”
That’s equally true of making solar accessible across income levels.
In California, for instance, strong net metering policies and the Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes Program have shown strong results. In Fresno County, half the solar installations are in zip codes with median incomes between $40,000 and $55,000. Zip codes with median incomes less than $40,000 now make up more installations than the $55,000 to $70,000 range or the more than $70,000 range.