CENTER FOR SOCIAL INCLUSION
A road map to successful policies and programs that are creating access to solar technology and jobs nationwide.
About This Guide
The Low-Income Solar Policy Guide was developed by nonprofits GRID Alternatives, Vote Solar, and the Center for Social Inclusion, to help drive the proposal and adoption of new low-income solar policies and programs, both as stand-alone efforts and as part of broader renewable energy programs. It is meant to be a tool for policymakers, community leaders and others who are working on solar access at the Federal, state and local level.
There are many effective policy tools for supporting solar adoption among consumers at large, and nearly all of them help expand low-income access to solar power to some extent. However, fully enabling low-income solar participation requires policies and programs that are specifically designed to address the unique barriers faced by these communities. This guide provides an overview of those barriers, as well as underlying principles for successful programs, existing policy tools that can be used to create programs, and examples of state and local models that have successfully improved access.
This project was made possible by the generous support of the Energy Foundation and the 11th Hour Project.
For generations, fossil fuel power has disproportionately impacted the health and well-being of low-income communities, particularly communities of color and indigenous communities. Emissions from power plants sited in these communities contribute to high rates of asthma and cancer, and the presence of heavy industry contributes to a cycle of poverty and public disinvestment in neighborhoods that can least afford it.
In addition to the health impacts, these same energy sources are a major contributor to climate change. Pre-existing vulnerabilities mean that low-income families are impacted more by climate change-related natural disasters and extreme weather. While Hurricane Sandy impacted every New Yorker, the poorest neighborhoods suffered the worst impacts and took the longest to recover from lost homes, wages, and – yes – electricity.
For these reasons and others, social justice groups at both the local and national level have declared energy to be a civil rights issue. The NAACP’s Just Energy Report(1) calls for clean energy progress and states that “community involvement in paving new energy pathways is especially important because our energy system is broken and communities of color are paying the highest price.” The status quo of energy production, where just a few hold the energy resources, needs to be rethought. Through solar and other clean energy technologies we have the opportunity to – literally – bring power to the people.
That fundamental shift in the way we produce and consume power is now underway all across the country. Tracking the Sun, a report published annually by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory finds that solar prices continue to decline rapidly. The average cost of a solar electric system has dropped in half since 2010 alone, putting this once-expensive technology within reach of middle-income Americans and driving a surge in solar adoption. There is ten times more solar installed in our country today than there was just five years ago. More renewable energy means less of the air pollution that has burdened underserved communities.
However, there remains a real need for policies that effectively overcome the unique barriers faced by low-income Americans in order to ensure that our transition to renewables is transformative for both our planet and our communities.
By prioritizing equity in solar policy, we can build a just energy system that gives all communities the opportunity to participate not just as consumers but as producers and owners. We can enable low-income families to invest their precious dollars in their own future rather than in ever rising and often volatile energy bills. We can create good career and educational opportunities that are localized for the greatest impacts. And we can invest in communities to build shared wealth.
Whether motivated by these critical justice issues, the climate crisis, or the economic opportunity of a largely untapped solar market sector, there are many reasons to make equity a key pillar of our nation’s growing solar economy.
Laying the Foundation
A. Why Act
The growth of solar in the United States provides a tremendous opportunity to address some of the greatest challenges faced by lower-income communities: the high cost of housing, unemployment, and pollution. Solar can provide long-term financial relief to families struggling with high and unpredictable energy costs, living-wage employment opportunities in an industry adding jobs at a rate of 20 percent per year, and a source of clean, local energy sited in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by traditional power generation.
Interest in large-scale policies to enable solar access for low-income families is increasing across the country, thanks to the success of early policy initiatives in California; national leadership around low-income solar access from the Obama Administration; and increased public interest in the unique combination of public policy issues that low-income solar can address. The market opportunity is huge: Over 6 million affordable housing units currently exist in the United States,(1) and although precise figures for low-income homeowners are difficult to pinpoint, census and other data suggest that there are around 22 million owner-occupied households with incomes at or below 80 percent of their area median income (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of low-income). Targeted solar policies could open up access for these households on a large scale. Reasons to develop a low-income solar program include:
- Equitable Access. States like California have recognized that their solar programs are funded by all ratepayers/taxpayers, including low-income, and have worked to provide equitable access to incentives.
- Participation. Low-income solar programs offer an opportunity to be proactive in ensuring that all communities are participating early and are part of our national transition to clean energy.
- Economic Benefit. Because low-income families spend a disproportionate amount of their income on utility bills, they receive a proportionally greater economic benefit from solar power.
- Environmental Justice. Low-income communities bear the brunt of pollution and climate change.
- Jobs. A low-income solar program engages low-income communities in the emerging solar sector and can provide access to employment opportunities.
- Widespread Adoption. A low-income solar program can move local solar markets beyond the “early adopter” phase and show that solar is a viable energy solution for all communities.
About GRID Alternatives
GRID Alternatives is a 501(c)(3) certified non-profit organization that brings together community partners, volunteers and job trainees to implement solar power and energy efficiency for low-income families, providing energy cost savings, valuable hands-on experience, and a source of clean, local energy that benefits us all.
About Vote Solar
Vote Solar is a non-profit grassroots organization working to fight climate change and foster economic opportunity by bringing solar energy into the mainstream. Since 2002, Vote Solar has engaged in state, local and federal advocacy campaigns to remove regulatory barriers and implement key policies needed to bring solar to scale. We have staff in California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.
About the Center for Social Inclusion
The Center for Social Inclusion works to identify and support policy strategies to transform structural inequity and exclusion into structural fairness and inclusion. We work with community groups and national organizations to develop policy ideas, foster effective leadership, and develop communications tools for an opportunity-rich world in which we all will thrive no matter our race or ethnicity.