Community Solar: Justice and Jobs

Community Solar Helps Build the Just Energy System We Need

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By Kailey Kimsa

Why do we need to talk about social justice when we talk about how our energy is produced? In short: pollution and economic inequality. The bad news is that the Trump Administration plans to close the Office of Environmental Justice, which for more than

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Mustafa Ali, Former Director of the EPA Office of Environmental Justice

20 years has been working to address these issues. But there’s hope. New ways of getting even more clean, solar power built are taking hold. In this article we’ll explore why we need a just energy system and how community solar offers an exciting new way for households to get involved, helping accelerate the transition to a renewable energy grid and displacing the energy from dirty fossil fuel plants.

 

There are important social justice issues with the way our energy is generated. Low-income and minority communities have long borne the costs of pollution by America’s industries. The Office of Environmental Justice was created in 1994 and has the goal “to provide an environment where all people enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to maintain a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” The Office helps communities clean up the harmful toxins left behind by polluting industries, which have long-lasting effects on residents’ health. It helps rehabilitate former industrial facilities to clean, useful land and gives a voice to those who are taken advantage of by polluting industries. Despite the Office’s progress on these issues, there is still so much to do.

Dirty power plants are consistently found near low-income or predominately African American communities. According to the NAACP report Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People, 78 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power clean jobs asthmaplant, as compared to 56 percent of non-Hispanic whites. A study by Paul Mohai of the University of Michigan and Robin Saha of the University of Montana, features an investigation of the neighborhoods where hazardous waste sites were located. The investigation found “strong evidence” that these facilities are in areas with predominantly non-white and low-income groups or areas experiencing “white flight.”

The impacts of living near sources of pollution are devastating. In the U.S., an African American child is twice as likely to have asthma as a white child. And, African Americans are more likely to die from lung disease, but less likely to smoke. In communities disproportionately burdened by pollution, residents spend more of their income on healthcare bills and have to take more sick days. Where there are high rates of asthma among kids, more parents are forced to miss work to take care of their ill children. The health effects caused by living in polluted communities also make it that much harder for residents to escape poverty. An energy system that disproportionately sickens the people it should serve is not an energy system that we should stand for.

But there are more than just health costs from our existing energy system. A study examining the energy burden across 48 major U.S. metropolitan areas found that low-income households spend up to three times as much of their income on energy bills compared to higher-income households. While the median energy burden for non-low-income households is 2.3 percent, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers spend a staggering 40 percent of their household income on energy. Why is this? Low-income households tend to live in energy-inefficient residences that waste electricity and heating and don’t have access to energy efficiency programs. No one should have to choose between buying groceries or paying their heating bill. State agencies and nonprofits try to ease the energy burden, but funding alone cannot meet the needs of all communities. We need new and innovative solutions to make our energy system cleaner and more affordable.

Community solar is one solution. It enables people who would not otherwise have access to renewable energy to displace their use of dirty energy, supporting the transition to a cleaner grid. Community solar also lowers a subscriber’s energy bill by approximately 10 percent in most Northeastern states. More renewable energy on the grid in place of fossil fuels will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Displacing fossil fuels with renewables will also produce public health and economic benefits, particularly for low-income and minority communities.

Community solar has the potential to reach a lot of people. One report predicts that there will be 1.5 GW of community solar by 2020, which would be roughly equal to 6.9 million photovoltaic solar panels. Community solar presents amazing opportunities for our planet and our communities. More households choosing solar instead of fossil fuels means cleaner air and healthier people—specifically for those communities currently burdened by pollution. And more community solar means greater disposable income for households. Even with the dissolution of the Office of Environmental Justice, there are still ways we can promote environmental justice and empower our communities.

Community solar is helping build a just energy system and we want you to be a part of the movement! Check out www.ourpower.solar for more information on community solar and how to get involved.


Solar Offers a Bright Future for American Workers

By Kailey Kimsa

Despite political promises, coal jobs are not coming back. Why? Because coal is significantly more expensive than natural gas and renewable energy, like wind and

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Nevada residents protest proposal to curtail rooftop solar in the state.  CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locherion

solar. In fact, solar is booming in America. GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) predict that America’s solar market will almost triple in size in the next five years. The main reason is cost. In 2008, the wholesale price of a solar panel was $4 per watt, but by 2016 it had fallen to $0.65 per watt. Today, there are 1.4 million solar arrays in the U.S. And, for every solar array installed, a team of solar workers is needed for the job.

 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2017 Energy and Employment Report, the solar industry now employs more people than the coal, oil and gas industries combined. Since 2010, the solar workforce has increased by 178%. In 2016 alone, the solar workforce grew by 25% and accounted for one of every 50 new jobs. These are good jobs. A 2017 study by The Solar Foundation of multiple prominent solar installers found that, within their first 6 to 12 months on the job, entry-level installers were likely to be promoted at least once, with an average increase in pay of 45% with each promotion. Solar installation jobs are also not at risk of being outsourced and typically don’t require a college degree. As general manager of Swinerton Renewable Energy, George Hershman, explained to Think Progress, “A great aspect of this business [solar installation] is that it isn’t an exclusionary trade. It’s a teachable job that can create opportunity for people and give them a skill.”

In this article, we’ll look at how two companies and a government program are bringing the benefits of solar to American workers and why community solar might accelerate the growth of solar jobs in America.

GRID Alternatives: Bringing the benefits of solar where it’s needed most

GRID Alternatives, a non-profit organization, provides solar panels to low-income communities, while offering solar installation training. GRID is funded through grants and donations, and relies mostly on volunteers to install their solar panels. Those who volunteer with GRID in turn receive solar installation training, making them qualified for entry-level solar jobs. With solar jobs paying a median wage of $26 an hour and with the sector expected to grow by 20% each year, there’s a real opportunity to generate steady jobs for those who have struggled to find work. GRID offers additional training programs, including Women in Solar and Troops to Solar, which, by 2016, had provided training to 26,000 people. In 2015, GRID partnered with Grand Valley Power to produce a community solar garden with exclusively low-income subscribers in Grand Valley, Colorado. The subscribers save on their monthly utility bills and, ultimately have more money to spend on other necessities, such as groceries, education and healthcare.

SEI: Turning fossil fuel workers toward solar

Solar Energy International (SEI), a renewable energy training organization, is retraining mining, oil and gas workers for solar jobs. To-date, SEI alone has retrained approximately 45,000 former fossil fuel workers. To put that in perspective, from the beginning of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016, almost 118,000 oil and gas jobs were eliminated in the U.S. These unemployed energy workers have, with little retraining, ideal skill-sets for the renewable energy sector. As Noel Wichmann, a former mine employee who has gone through SEI’s program, explained, “Solar is up and coming, and it is the future.” Today, Wichmann runs his own solar company. As we move away from damaging fossil fuels towards the brighter future of renewable energy, we need to support former mining, oil and gas workers in their own transition toward participating in a greener economy.

New York’s green-collar workforce

This past June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Clean Climate Careers initiative, which will support the growth of a renewable energy workforce in New York. By 2020, the initiative aims to have created 40,000 new, well-paid clean energy jobs. Cuomo has also dedicated $15 million to organizations in the clean energy industry who offer third-party professional training programs. New York aims to source 50% of its energy from renewables by 2030. To reach this goal, New York is scaling-up community solar, through the Shared Renewables Initiative, and building a clean energy workforce. A commitment to a renewable energy future also requires a commitment to the people who engineer, install and sell renewable energy. As the Empire State continues to support the fight against climate change, it will generate economic opportunities for New Yorkers.

Community solar supports American workers

Just as important as government mandates and worker retraining programs are the types of solar projects that get built. Community solar is about involving communities in the development of new solar projects. A subscriber to community solar doesn’t need to install panels. Instead, a subscriber commits to being a customer of the solar project and benefits from the clean power it generates. Navigant Research predicts that there will be 1.5 GW of community solar by 2020, which would be roughly equal to 6.9 million photovoltaic solar panels. By including low-income subscribers, community solar projects can provide economic relief to households by lowering their monthly utility bills. By allowing individuals to participate in large solar installations, more solar arrays get built, creating employment opportunities for workers being retrained to participate in the solar industry. Solar jobs are well-paid with low barriers to entry, which means they are accessible to those who really need the work. By supporting solar, we increase the need for solar jobs—really good jobs available to people regardless of their background, education or income-status.

A truly America first energy plan is one that creates jobs, supports a resilient economy, and protects people’s and the planet’s health. These are the benefits the clean energy revolution will bring to Americans. The only question then is: are you in?

Community solar is making solar energy accessible to more people than ever before. That means more solar jobs, greater savings for households, and stronger communities. Our Power is incredibly excited to support the growth of community solar and America’s green-collar workforce. We hope you’re excited too! Learn how you can participate in a community solar near you at www.ourpower.solar

 

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