NEWS Solar Power’s Benefits Don’t Shine Equally on Everyone

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High­land Park’s street­lights were torn out in 2011 because the pre­dom­i­nantly black Detroit sub­urb couldn’t pay its elec­tric­ity bill after the 2008 eco­nomic down­turn. Today street lamps once again cast reas­sur­ing pools of light—and this time they are cheaper, because they har­vest the energy of the sun. High­land Park offers an exam­ple of what envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice advo­cates hope to do more of to bring afford­able, clean energy to com­mu­ni­ties of color.

Plum­met­ing costs have helped solar power rapidly expand in the past decade, with U.S. res­i­den­tial instal­la­tion grow­ing by more than 50 per­cent each year between 2010 and 2016. But access to this energy has not been equitable—and not just because up-​​front instal­la­tion costs can price out peo­ple with lower incomes. A new study indi­cates that even when income is taken out of the equa­tion, com­mu­ni­ties of color have installed fewer rooftop solar facil­i­ties than pre­dom­i­nantly white com­mu­ni­ties. The data are among the first to show such an inequal­ity in access to clean energy, a sit­u­a­tion advo­cates have been report­ing anec­do­tally for years. The results “affirm trends in dis­par­ity in adop­tion that are well known to prac­ti­tion­ers, but demon­strate their exis­tence in a robust way,” says Ben Sigrin, an energy sys­tems mod­el­ing engi­neer at the National Renew­able Energy Lab­o­ra­tory in Golden, Col­orado, who was not involved in the study.

Rea­sons for the dis­par­ity remain unclear, but the lat­est find­ings sug­gest pro­grams aimed at boost­ing solar power in dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties need to con­sider more than just income lev­els. Some activists and non­profit orga­ni­za­tions are already mov­ing in this direc­tion. For exam­ple, the civil rights group NAACP—inspired partly by local activists who formed a group called Soular­dar­ity, which helped bring High­land Park its solar street lamps—launched a year-​​long 2018 Solar Equity Ini­tia­tive aimed at improv­ing solar energy access to mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing racial and eth­nic minori­ties. “To us [energy] is just another dimen­sion of social jus­tice chal­lenges,” says Jacque­line Pat­ter­son, direc­tor of the NAACP’s Envi­ron­men­tal and Cli­mate Jus­tice Pro­gram. “With clean energy, not only is it often a more afford­able way of access­ing energy, but it also puts us in con­trol of our energy.”

Solar Dis­par­i­ties

Researchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley saw a golden oppor­tu­nity to study imbal­ances in solar power deploy­ment through their access to data from Google’s Project Sunroof—an ini­tia­tive that maps solar rooftop pan­els seen in satel­lite images—and demo­graphic data from the U.S. Cen­sus. They had an inkling of pos­si­ble racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties but ini­tially thought other socioe­co­nomic fac­tors could help explain many of them. Yet their study results, pub­lished in Jan­u­ary in Nature Sus­tain­abil­ity,showed that even when con­trol­ling for income lev­els, neigh­bor­hoods with either black or His­panic major­ity pop­u­la­tions have installed fewer rooftop solar pan­els than neigh­bor­hoods with no clear racial or eth­nic major­ity. White-​​majority neigh­bor­hoods, in stark con­trast, have more rooftop solar instal­la­tions than those with­out a clear major­ity. The researchers say these dif­fer­ences can­not be com­pletely explained by either house­hold income or home own­er­ship lev­els (home­own­ers are more likely than renters to invest in per­ma­nent solar pan­els). “I was not sur­prised to see that race and eth­nic­ity were impor­tant, but once we con­trolled for income I thought the effect would be reduced sig­nif­i­cantly,” says Daniel Kam­men, direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley and a co-​​author on the study. “But alas, it was not.”

The study did not uncover the root of why rooftop solar pan­els are typ­i­cally sparser in black and His­panic neigh­bor­hoods. But the find­ings mesh with reports from indus­try and non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, which have pre­vi­ously shown that a lack of diver­sity in the envi­ron­men­tal and solar-​​power fields has hin­dered efforts to spread solar power’s ben­e­fits. Causal fac­tors may con­nect to the well-​​documented his­tor­i­cal pat­tern of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion that has left many minor­ity neigh­bor­hoods in the U.S. stuck with prob­lems like insuf­fi­cient pub­lic infra­struc­ture and preda­tory home loans. “The dis­par­ity in rooftop solar is the same dis­par­ity as in every­thing else,” says Naomi Davis, founder and pres­i­dent of the Chicago-​​based non­profit orga­ni­za­tion Blacks in Green.

The study also adds to the body of research show­ing that black and His­panic Amer­i­cans bear the brunt of the costs of fos­sil fuel use. For one thing, they are exposed to higher lev­els of air pol­lu­tion than white Americans—regardless of income lev­els. There are more direct eco­nomic effects as well. “This paper does high­light an energy injus­tice,” says Deb­o­rah Sunter, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing at Tufts Uni­ver­sity in Med­ford, Mass. and co-​​author of the rooftop solar study, “because there are cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties that are miss­ing out on the finan­cial ben­e­fits that come with hav­ing rooftop solar: the tax incen­tives, the rebates, the profit from net meter­ing.” (The lat­ter refers to cred­its received in exchange for putting excess solar power into the elec­tric­ity grid.)

Shift­ing Strategies

There is already a move­ment among com­mu­nity activists, researchers and politi­cians to pro­mote social jus­tice in poli­cies designed to sup­port clean energy and fight cli­mate change. “There is tons of lead­er­ship in com­mu­ni­ties of color that is not seen or acknowl­edged, and it’s grow­ing,” says Julian Foley, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Grid Alter­na­tives, a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion based in Oak­land, Calif. that helps dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties install solar projects. The study’s results could help fine-​​tune such efforts by under­lin­ing the need to shift strate­gies from focus­ing only on low-​​income communities—since that approach may not catch neigh­bor­hoods where eth­nic minori­ties pre­dom­i­nate. Kam­men says pol­i­cy­mak­ers could, for exam­ple, rec­og­nize how credit scores have been used to dis­crim­i­nate in home loans on the basis of race—and could apply “pos­i­tive pres­sure” by offer­ing bonuses to loan seek­ers who add rooftop solar pan­els or other energy-​​efficiency measures.

Offi­cials also need to be aware of how small changes in pol­icy can have indi­rect but sig­nif­i­cant impacts on pro­grams aimed at bol­ster­ing solar power in dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties. For exam­ple, the Bishop Paiute Tribe has used both fed­eral energy grants and Cal­i­for­nia state fund­ing for rooftop solar projects, which can slash monthly util­ity bills by up to 90 per­cent. But start­ing in 2020, new Cal­i­for­nia rules that define dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties accord­ing to U.S. Cen­sus tracts could make the tribe inel­i­gi­ble for such state fund­ing, despite being a low-​​income com­mu­nity. “A lot of tribes are smaller than cen­sus tracts, so the income base gets diluted by sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties” under the new rules, says Brian Adkins, envi­ron­men­tal direc­tor at the Bishop Paiute Tribe Envi­ron­men­tal Man­age­ment Office.

The researchers behind the new study also hope it can encour­age lead­ers to sup­port envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice for his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged communities—and to rec­og­nize more diverse voices on such mat­ters. “The envi­ron­men­tal move­ment in the United States has an over­whelm­ing amount of white lead­er­ship, and even if many of those groups are doing great things, that doesn’t speak towards a very inclu­sive effort,” Kam­men says.

The advo­cacy work done by Davis, the Chicago non­profit leader, has helped shape state leg­is­la­tion aimed at increas­ing renew­able energy in Illi­nois. She has also secured fund­ing for solar job train­ing and has set up a social enter­prise pro­gram in hopes of estab­lish­ing a solar panel assem­bly plant in Chicago’s pre­dom­i­nantly black Wood­lawn neigh­bor­hood by 2021. Davis sees solar power as just one small piece of a big­ger holis­tic approach to build­ing sus­tain­able neigh­bor­hoods, but she wants to make sure black com­mu­ni­ties are not left out of the eco­nomic tran­si­tion to clean energy in the U.S. “Step back and cre­ate part­ner­ships where money flows directly to front­line envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice community-​​based orga­ni­za­tions,” Davis says. “And then depend on those orga­ni­za­tions to write the story.”

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