Emily Pickrell, UH Energy Scholar
The Biden administration has its eyes unflinchingly set on the sun, this week announcing plans to shift the U.S. to 40% solar power by 2050.
The announcement is motivated by concerns about climate change, but solar investment has a healthy economic benefit for its owners – solar panels raise a home’s value on average by more than four percent.
Yet the benefits of rooftop solar, which is encouraged through government programs and tax policies, are disproportionately accruing in richer neighborhoods.
Early photovoltaic – or PV – adopters are four times more likely to be earning $200,000 a year or more than those earning less than $50,000, according to a 2021 study on income equity in solar adoption.
Solar policy currently also seems to encourage adoption on racial lines.
Neighborhoods with more than 50 percent black or Hispanic populations had significantly less rooftop solar installations than those with a majority white population, according to a 2019 study by Tufts University and the University of California, Berkeley.
The study compared households with comparable median household incomes and found that majority black communities had 69 percent less rooftop solar installations than no majority communities.
One of the big problems for lower income and more ethnically diverse many neighborhoods is a lack of knowledge exposure on how to secure solar power, as well as its benefits.
There are a whole host of reasons for this.
The first issue is that of a broader question of infrastructure needs, and who should allocate them – and how. Community activists struggle with balancing the benefits of solar power, for example, with that of other needs.
“How do you say we are going to give people solar when they cannot even put a new roof on their house?” said Catherine Flowers, one of the founders of Energy Well Texas, which provides consulting services on energy options for communities. “When we talk about equity, that means giving people exactly what they need, not just what we want to give them.”
Making the decision about whether solar is the best solution for an individual’s financial needs and environmental priorities requires education on the options.
In places where solar power has become popular, there has typically been a first adopter who becomes familiar with the technology and essentially educates the local community. This solar first adopter then becomes that reliable voice of encouragement, paving the way for others to do so as well.
Research has shown that these solar experts tend to come directly from the solar workforce, which is also predominantly white. Nearly two-thirds of the solar workforce self identifies as such – which could explain the lower levels of exposure to the benefits of solar in non-white majority communities.
The disparity in the solar industry is even more stark at the top: the U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study 2019 found that 88% of all senior executives at solar firms are white, and 80% are men.
The NAACP is one group that acknowledges the link between solar jobs in communities of color and its potential to increase solar installations in these neighborhoods. In July, The NAACP published its own Equitable Solar Policy Principles, to ensure that the benefits of solar flow fairly to minority and poorer communities.
“We envision a solar-powered future that invests in under-resourced communities, creates local, sustainable wealth, and adds to community resilience and a healthier future for all,” said Denise Abdul-Rahman, the national field organizer for the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, in a written statement.
Putting more emphasis on training for jobs in fields like solar energy could also help open up opportunities for minority communities, according to said Reeves Clippard, the CEO and co-founder of A&R Solar, a Northwest-based solar installation company.
“Washington State has a great community college system,” Clippard said. “They are giving all kinds of skills to kids and retraining professionals – not just about how to get into solar, but how to understand it, and understanding the building science. There is a lot of training that needs to happen.”
For those ready to move forward on solar, the investments can also come in a variety of packages. One option is the installation of solar panels on a free-standing building, such as a house, or a multi-household dwelling.
There are many benefits in making this investment – the federal government provides a 26% tax credit for systems installed in 2020-2022, and 22% for systems installed in 2023.
Yet the way solar installation loans and tax incentives have traditionally been structured also makes them difficult for lower income households to benefit from.
“The fact is that the pathways to adopting renewables have has largely been built on consumer debt,” said Tamara Jones, managing director at Clean Energy Works, a nonprofit an Atlanta-based organization that provides advisory services on clean energy solutions. “In the marketplace, there are two big assumptions – that you are rich enough to pay for it yourself, or and that you will take out a loan to do so.”
Clean Energy Works is one of several organizations that are developing financial strategies for those who may not own their own building or whose credit and income profiles may not meet this standard.
For others, joining a solar co-operative is an option that could open the door for more citizens to the benefits of sun power.
It allows neighbors who are not ready to make a huge up-front commitment to instead share the expense of installing solar – and its benefits.
These co-ops organize 50 to 100 neighbors in a group that can then take on the process of purchasing a joint solar contract with an electricity provider. The solar co-ops essentially give these members a bulk-purchasing power while still maintaining an individual contract agreement. The benefits of these arrangements include discounted pricing and the assurance of a quality solar installation.
All of these strategies feel like a partial solution in weaning the country off of fossil fuel power, but they are an example of the thousand little steps that will be needed to make an energy transition successful.
“We are not going to be able to address the climate change peril unless we get 100 percent of the people participating in this new clean energy economy,” Jones said. “We all need to be in the lifeboat or everyone drowns.”
Emily Pickrell is a veteran energy reporter, with more than 12 years of experience covering everything from oil fields to industrial water policy to the latest on Mexican climate change laws. Emily has reported on energy issues from around the U.S., Mexico and the United Kingdom. Prior to journalism, Emily worked as a policy analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office and as an auditor for the international aid organization, CARE.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.