Energy justice has long sought to redress the harm done to people in low-income communities who suffer from fossil fuel pollution near their homes, lack of access to affordable renewable electricity, climate change, and more. The concept is broadly called environmental justice. But the term casts a wider net to cover intersecting issues like health and transportation, while energy justice focuses on making affordable energy available to all. Renewable energy plays an important role in bringing energy justice to disadvantaged communities, as clean energy can bring convenience in many forms, including community and residential solar power as well as energy storage.
The US Department of Energy has developed a method to designate disadvantaged communities based on 36 criteria related to energy burden, environmental and climate threats, socioeconomic vulnerabilities, and fossil fuel dependence. While these communities could benefit from renewable energy, a recent report from Berkeley Lab, “Income and Demographic Trends of Residential Solar Adopters,” shows that even as the rate of solar adoption among low-income residents increases (from 5% in 2010 to 2021 11% per year), this segment of energy consumers is underrepresented among solar energy adopters compared to their share in the population.
There are a number of barriers to adoption for people living in these communities. Many do not own their home and will live in multi-family housing. Therefore, putting solar energy on the roof is not a viable option. Because such households have low incomes, they often have low credit scores and are unable to take advantage of the no-down payment rental options in the market. In addition, their budgets are tight – especially in the current economic climate – and they have little or no disposable income.
Community solar is especially applicable to those who cannot afford to “go solar” on their own, those who do not have a roof, and those whose roofs are not suitable for solar. Community solar is a solar project or purchase program where energy from a solar project flows to multiple customers in a specific geographic area. The concept is starting to spread in the United States. For example, in August USA pv magazine Analyst Wood Mackenzie and the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA) reported that the community solar market in the US will add at least 7 GW (DC) of generating capacity in existing markets over the next five years.
However, the availability of community solar energy is a challenge. According to Olivia Nedd, senior policy director for access and equity at clean energy nonprofit Vote Solar, “some states, like California and Colorado, are more adept at allowing community solar legislation.” Others, he said, “put community solar laws or every barrier imaginable to stop any rooftop development.” He noted that low-income people in areas without policies to support community solar energy face challenges understanding how to access the technology.
Vote Solar is one of the groups working to make a difference by identifying programs and funding streams and then supporting partners throughout the transition to solar. The group works to connect people who want solar energy with community-based organizations, front-line groups and individuals who can provide information on how to spend their money.
Fortunately, the Inflationary Reduction Act (IRA) contains incentives that help the development of community solar energy in the United States. “Support can be so important, it can transform communities,” Nedd said. “But we have to put a big asterisk on it because it requires developers to do projects within low-income communities.”
The IRA offers support in the form of a 30% tax credit for a solar installation and tax credits with three collectors that can add up to 70%. In addition, IRAs include a reciprocity fee in this tax credit. All of this should be incentive enough, but as Nedd points out, more effort is needed to engage communities. “Community-based organizations need enough time to inform how programs are designed because these programs will affect them,” he said.
CCSA is a national trade group working to expand access to community solar energy. CCSA President and CEO Jeff Cramer said that with nearly 75% of American households unable to afford rooftop solar, community solar serves as a key way to access the benefits of locally distributed solar energy. CCSA works at the state and federal level to create sustainable and scalable programs that benefit all clients and the network. The group is working with a wide range of stakeholders to understand how to ensure that the benefits of the IRA reach the customers who need it most. CCSA aims to bring projects online quickly, sustainably and at scale over the ten-year life of the IRA tax credit.
Another piece of legislation relevant to low-income residents is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, a $7 billion federal funding program to support state governments and other eligible entities to establish or expand distributed solar programs, Kramer noted. benefits for low- and middle-income customers.
Grid Alternatives is another group working to bring fair energy to those who need it most. This non-profit organization is dedicated to helping communities access clean, affordable renewable energy along with transportation and jobs. The group has an international focus, with ongoing energy justice work in the United States, Nepal, Nicaragua and Mexico. Since 2004, Grid Alternatives has served more than 27,000 households, 204 public facilities – apartment buildings and non-profit organizations – saving families a total of $640 million. Its installations are equivalent to saving almost 2.63 TWh of electricity, or more than one million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Grid Alternatives not only helps low-income families go solar, but provides a training program that helps nearly 40,000 people start new solar careers.
Several states have strong energy justice programs, including Illinois, New York, Colorado, and California. In September 2021, Illinois passed the Climate and Equal Employment Act, which focuses on climate change, racism and economic inequality. As its name suggests, it focuses on job training, recruitment, ownership and entrepreneurship in low-income communities.
New York has a similar policy. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019 requires a minimum of 40% of all state climate and capital spending to go to frontline Black, brown, and low-income communities. In addition, New York’s plan to reach 10 GW of distributed solar by 2030 calls for 1.6 GW of new installed solar power to benefit disadvantaged communities.
In Colorado, the Environmental Justice Coalition and other parties protested the utility Xcel Energy in support of fairer clean energy. The utility agreed to commit $32.8 million to renewable energy programs and incentives for low-income customers and those in disadvantaged communities. Up to $52.6 million is earmarked for community solar projects, and $6.5 million will go toward nearly 10 MW of energy storage capacity.
In California, the Community Renewable Energy Act (AB 2316) creates a community renewable energy program that includes community solar-plus-storage options. CCSA’s Cramer said his organization believes the funding could serve as a “catalyst to create long-term sustainable and scalable low-income solar programs and distributed solar programs.”
Inflation Reduction Act
The IRA legislative package passed in August in the US offers several grant programs specifically designed to support meaningful initiatives to improve public health, reduce pollution and revitalize marginalized and underserved communities. Considered the most significant climate legislation in US history, it promotes the adoption of clean energy across the board and is likely to impact the communities that bear the greatest burden. For example, the IRA includes the Justice40 Initiative, which supports programs that improve clean transit and workforce development, while also investing in programs that make clean energy more affordable and accessible and strengthen resilience to climate change.
IRA also established the Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator, which will create state and local clean energy financing institutions and support the deployment of zero-emission technologies. Half of these investments are prioritized for disadvantaged communities. In addition, programs specific to tribal communities include purchasing efficient electrical appliances, bringing clean energy to homes without electricity, etc. offers discounts on
“The money is on the table now,” Kramer said. While there are groups pushing for solar access for all and states with strong legislation, there are other pockets of the US showing interest in surprising places. Louisiana, for example, has no solar policy or support for low-income residents going solar, but the city of New Orleans has its own utility commission with a community solar program. In Nebraska, promising cooperatives have created community solar projects.
“I think it starts with a seed of interest that continues to grow,” Cramer said. As the movement grows, he added, “the benefits of community solar become undeniable and the desire to develop capacity accelerates.” Ultimately, it’s about making sure these interests continue to grow and call for access to solar energy for the sake of energy justice for all.
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