Good energy policy is good people policy
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In 2014, two families of the Mesa Grande Band of Mission Indians in rural California installed rooftop solar panels to stem rising energy bills that were straining their already tight budgets.

Now, three years later, thanks to California’s innovative low-income solar incentive program, the tribe is well on its way to meeting a goal of 100 percent solar energy for the reservation’s 50 homes, including 12 that never had power at all. The tribal community has also built their own solar company, generating steady income in a community that suffered from an 80 percent unemployment rate in 2014.

Energy has a profound impact on just about every aspect of our lives. For millions of Americans, rural and urban, access to solar power can mean real economic opportunity, improved health and an ownership stake in our nation’s growing new energy economy. And as the families of the Mesa Grande Band demonstrated, progress on those many fronts can happen quickly when policies and community interests align.

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The key lesson from Mesa Grande and neighborhoods nationwide is that state and local leaders have both the authority and ability to put solar to work improving health and well-being for all, and especially for disadvantaged families who have the most to gain from a transition to affordable clean energy. But it requires solar policy and programs that are intentional about meeting the specific needs of those low-income communities.

 

Solar power’s competitiveness is already charting its path in mainstream America with a record-breaking 2016 that saw 97% annual growth in installations. The explosive rise of solar adoption among households in recent years is largely credited to the declining cost of solar and the increased availability of financing mechanisms that reduce or eliminate up-front costs, including leasing and third-party ownership agreements. Access to those financing schemes, though, is limited to those with higher credit scores, which can leave lower-income families behind.

In addition, millions of Americans live in rented multi-unit buildings or homes with shared roofs and don’t have a choice when it comes to energy. Still others simply can’t host solar on their own roof because of tree shading, orientation or the physical condition of the structure. These barriers are even more pronounced for families with limited incomes who are less likely to own their homes.

The good news is that many states, localities and even utilities have created innovative policies and programs to expand solar access among low-income consumers and ensure that those investments in solar are delivering savings on energy bills. Many of these programs also include access to job training and other economic development resources to create local opportunities in the nation’s rapidly growing solar jobs market.

Last year, GRID Alternatives and Vote Solar released a Low-income Solar Policy Guide to highlight the most successful models and provide tools for policymakers and other leaders who want to expand solar access. Since then, huge strides have been made in several key states to open up solar participation among low-income communities on a large scale.

Colorado, for example, approved a settlement with Xcel Energy, its largest utility, which includes special incentives to help its most energy-burdened customers access solar through a range of single-family, multi-family and community-scale options. The state will also be piloting a program to use federal weatherization dollars for solar projects, the first effort of its kind in the country. Rural utilities in the state have also pioneered community solar arrays exclusively for low-income customers, an investment in long-term energy cost reduction.

In Illinois last year, legislators passed a groundbreaking bill, the Future Energy Jobs Bill, which will jump-start both the general and low-income solar markets at the same time. As its name suggests, the bill has a heavy emphasis on job training, recognizing solar’s impressive job-generating capacity. The Illinois Solar for All program, which takes effect in June, includes specific carve-outs for community solar projects in environmentally impacted communities.

A new plan in Washington, D.C., is perhaps the most ambitious program to come online over the past year. Local lawmakers increased the district’s renewable energy target to 50 percent, and at the same time established the Solar for All program that aims to halve energy bills for 100,000 low-income households by 2032. Officials estimate their efforts will generate 3,500 new jobs.

In this charged political time, it’s important to note that for many of the cities and states that are making these investments, solar is not ideological. It’s a smart way to reduce housing costs, create long-term community wealth, revitalize local job markets and reduce air pollution and the heavy toll it takes on residents’ health. 

As Grand Valley Power General Manager Tom Walch put it after installing two low-income community solar arrays for his customers in Colorado, “You don’t have to be a west-coast liberal to make that happen. You can be a practical conservative out here on the western slopes of Colorado and still do good things like that.”

Support for solar power unites us across political lines and regional differences, as does support for the very tangible economic and health benefits it delivers. We would like to extend a huge thanks to the state and local leaders who are creating opportunities for everyone to be part of solar’s great American success story.

 

Erica Mackie (@GRID) is co-founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives, America's largest nonprofit solar installer.

Adam Browning (@votesolar) is executive director of Vote Solar, a nonprofit working to expand solar energy nationwide.


 

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