NEWS The color of energy: The Green New Deal Must Benefit Black And Hispanic Americans

James Ellsmor, Author

Arti­cle appeared in Forbes, Jan­u­ary 28, 2019

Solar power is a quickly grow­ing energy source in the United States, offer­ing impor­tant finan­cial ben­e­fits to house­holds. How­ever, a new study shows that many Amer­i­cans lack access to solar power. The report pub­lished in Nature Sus­tain­abil­ity by researchers from Tufts Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley sug­gests that the rea­sons go beyond mere economics.

The pres­ence of domes­tic solar pan­els has boomed across Amer­ica, but pre­dom­i­nantly in white neigh­bor­hoods, even after con­trol­ling for house­hold incomes and lev­els of home­own­er­ship. The find­ings show that cen­sus areas with over 50% black or His­panic pop­u­la­tions have “sig­nif­i­cantly less” pres­ence of domes­tic solar panel instal­la­tions than other areas. This sug­gests that the solar indus­try is not serv­ing all Amer­i­cans equally.

The find­ings of the study demon­strate a sig­nif­i­cant racial disparity:

Solar Access As A Civil Right

Dis­trib­uted solar refers to rooftop instal­la­tions of pho­to­voltaic (PV) pan­els, as opposed to large, cen­tral­ized solar power sta­tions. These instal­la­tions offer a num­ber of soci­etal ben­e­fits; reduc­ing car­bon diox­ide emis­sions and allow­ing indi­vid­u­als to gen­er­ate their own power. With the addi­tion of bat­tery stor­age, these sys­tems can also allow homes to retain power in the

Rooftop solar ben­e­fits the owner of the roof through a lower energy bill. While there are upfront instal­la­tion costs, PV equip­ment typ­i­cally pays for itself quickly, espe­cially in those states with good financ­ing options and where home­own­ers can sell excess elec­tric­ity back to the grid.

The cost of instal­la­tion is pro­hib­i­tive for many home­own­ers, and own­ers of rental prop­er­ties tend not to invest in PV because they may be unable to real­ize any finan­cial ben­e­fit (it’s the renters who would get a lower elec­tric bill). Many places, includ­ing parts of the US, have pro­grams aimed at low­er­ing the finan­cial bar­ri­ers to dis­trib­uted solar. But what if there are other barriers?

Finan­cial aid pro­grams alone won’t help if money isn’t the only prob­lem. The costs of cli­mate change already weigh heav­ier on dis­en­fran­chised groups. If the ben­e­fits of PV own­er­ship are also less avail­able to peo­ple of color, then that only com­pounds the injustice.

Lead author of the paper, and Tufts Uni­ver­sity Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Mechan­i­cal Engi­neer­ing Deb­o­rah Sunter, who recently attended the COP24 cli­mate sum­mit in Poland, com­mented that, “Solar power is crit­i­cal to meet­ing the cli­mate goals pre­sented by the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change, but we can and need to deploy solar so that it ben­e­fits all peo­ple, regard­less of race and ethnicity.”

The researchers set out to dis­cover whether mem­bers of racial and eth­nic minori­ties expe­ri­ence bar­ri­ers to PV own­er­ship other than price. They used cen­sus data to iden­tify the racial make-​​up up of indi­vid­ual cen­sus tracts, and com­bined those data with high-​​resolution maps to deter­mine which tracts had more rooftop solar.

The researchers con­trolled for vari­a­tions in solar inten­sity, finan­cial incen­tives, and other fac­tors that could influ­ence PV instal­la­tion besides race, such as house­hold income and home own­er­ship. What came of the analy­sis was a clear con­nec­tion between race and eth­nic­ity on the one hand and PV adop­tion on the other. Cen­sus tracts with a black or Latino major­ity con­sis­tently have less PV than oth­er­wise sim­i­lar tracts with no clear major­ity. And majority-​​white tracts had more PV than those with­out a major­ity. In majority-​​Asian tracts, the dis­par­ity was less appar­ent, but still present.

So, the big ques­tion becomes “why?”

The Color Of Energy

The study did not address how race and eth­nic­ity influ­ence PV adop­tion, and its authors can pro­vide no defin­i­tive expla­na­tion — but they do offer sev­eral possibilities.

In gen­eral, “seed­ing” speeds PV adop­tion: if one per­son gets rooftop solar, other peo­ple in the same neigh­bor­hood are likely to fol­low suit. The authors note that many more tracts with a non-​​white major­ity lacked even one house with solar, sug­gest­ing that part of the prob­lem is that seed­ing isn’t hap­pen­ing. A small dif­fer­ence in the like­li­hood of some­one get­ting that first rooftop panel may trans­late in a huge dif­fer­ence in the total num­ber of pan­els installed. This is cor­rob­o­rated by a pre­vi­ous study by Yale Uni­ver­sity, that found the most impor­tant fac­tor influ­enc­ing solar adop­tion was instal­la­tions on neigh­bor­ing households.

The authors also note that peo­ple of color are not well-​​represented in the solar indus­try, espe­cially at the man­age­ment level . Per­haps that lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion leads to poorer ser­vice to black or Latino neigh­bor­hoods — in a 2016 sur­vey just 6.6% of solar indus­try work­ers were found to be African-​​American.

Dan Kammen

Clos­ing The Gap

One of the study’s authors, Berkeley’s Dr. Dan Kam­men, states that he finds the results “depress­ing”, but also “a clear sign that we can do things dif­fer­ently and more equi­tably.” He con­sid­ers it likely that the prob­lem is “an effect of more solar installers and more seed pro­grams in more advan­taged areas,” and sug­gests solar edu­ca­tion and financ­ing tar­geted specif­i­cally to low-​​income com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple of color as part of the Green New Deal.

Kam­men con­tin­ues to say that seed­ing “could be reversed by tar­get­ing solar and other tech­nol­ogy edu­ca­tion and sales pro­grams in ways that work for low-​​income com­mu­ni­ties. Solar is an up-​​front cost, so we need efforts like the Green New Deal to make solar edu­ca­tion and financ­ing avail­able, such as is done by groups like Grid Alter­na­tives that train, work to finance, and to inte­grate solar and energy effi­ciency to make it a least cost, most secure energy option for dis­ad­van­taged communities.”

Dr Kam­men was pre­vi­ously appointed Sci­ence Envoy by the US State Depart­ment and made head­lines when his let­ter of res­ig­na­tion went viral in August 2017 cit­ing his con­cerns around the Pres­i­dent Trump’s fail­ure to denounce white suprema­cists and neo-​​nazis. He remains an out­spo­ken cham­pion of sus­tain­able energy pro­duc­tion and envi­ron­men­tal justice.

The authors of the study empha­size that the racial gap in solar adop­tion is a form of injus­tice since it denies many peo­ple real finan­cial ben­e­fits. They also sug­gest that, with­out inter­ven­tion, the gap is likely to grow. Aware­ness of the racial and eth­nic dimen­sion of the inequal­ity of access is the first step and should direct edu­ca­tion and financ­ing pro­grams that can address the dis­par­ity and bring dis­trib­uted solar to all.

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