Metropolis

The Best Way to Get Solar Power to Everyone Who Needs It

A construction worker is seen in front of a field of solar panels.
A worker walks past floating solar panels in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, on Feb. 23. Jack Taylor/AFP via Getty Images

This story was originally published by High Country News and has been republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The community solar project in El Dorado Park, near Fresno, California, had all the trappings of a great renewable energy project. It was designed with community input from the start. Almost all of El Dorado’s residents are low-income renters living in apartment buildings or multifamily housing units, and they’ve wanted to have green space and community solar. They found two vacant lots in their neighborhood that the owners were willing to sell for a reasonable price, and, together with the El Dorado Community Development Corporation, the residents created a plan to build community gardens with solar canopies that would generate nearly 66 kilowatts of power—enough to power about two dozen homes. They would form a cooperative so they could manage the project themselves and receive dividends as owners for the energy they sold back to the utilities. In 2020, Shake Energy Collaborative, a women-owned renewable energy developer that partners with low-income communities, came aboard and applied to Pacific Gas and Electric under one of the utility’s programs for community solar, the Community Solar Green Tariff.

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“Everyone was super stoked about the project because it meant a garden, plus cheaper [energy] rates, plus community ownership over that solar, which would continue to be a valuable asset for the neighborhood,” Ali Andrews, CEO of Shake Energy, told High Country News.

It was rejected, twice—the second time for undisclosed reasons. But Andrews isn’t that surprised: Even as community solar has boomed in other states, it’s lagged far behind in the Golden State. In 2019, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council gave California C and D grades for the two primary ways it offers community solar. The state has received similar ratings elsewhere.

Energy justice advocates say community solar is one of the most important ways to make renewable energy accessible to all, and that community ownership is crucial to ensuring that solar power’s benefits are more evenly distributed. Community solar—creating small solar farms on community centers, vacant lots, or nearby landfills—allows households that don’t own or have access to a roof to still benefit from renewables. This is especially important for renters, who make up almost half of California’s residents and are more likely to be low-income and people of color.

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“Rooftop solar only applies to single-family homeowners or those that have roofs that can actually get those rooftop solar installations,” said Alexis Sutterman, energy equity program manager at the California Environmental Justice Alliance, which consists of organizations that work with environmental justice communities. “That leaves a lot of communities out, especially multi-tenant properties and multifamily affordable housing units.”

It’s precisely those communities that would benefit most from having access to solar energy. On average, low-income and nonwhite households spend a much higher amount of their income on energy costs—up to 45 percent more than white households, in some cases. Historically, low-income and nonwhite residences have disproportionately suffered the health effects of living near oil and gas facilities. Yet almost 90 percent of California’s 1.3 million rooftop solar installations have been on single-family, owner-occupied homes; just over 10 percent of the households that benefit from reduced energy rates from solar are considered disadvantaged communities.

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Now the California Public Utilities Commission is weighing a major decision to reform its net energy metering policy for rooftop solar. This is the system that decides how much money residents will save from having solar. The state’s three major utilities say that the savings solar customers currently enjoy are so great that those customers no longer pay their fair share for the operation of the overall energy grid. A CPUC report explains that “the costs of [net energy metering] are disproportionately paid by younger, less wealthy, and more disadvantaged ratepayers, many of whom are renters.” The commission is using this as a way to justify its decision to change the benefits solar customers receive. It also plans to charge those customers for using the grid, and to reduce the amount they are paid for the energy they sell back to utilities.

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But if equity were truly a concern, energy justice advocates say, encouraging community ownership of solar would be the real focus. In February, the California Environmental Justice Alliance wrote a public letter to the commission urging it, among other things, to “take immediate action towards expanding access to community solar projects in order to effectively reach renters and residents living in older housing who continue to face significant barriers and limited options to participating in the clean energy transition.” When asked to comment, CPUC replied that although community solar is not being considered at the moment, “CPUC … will consider community solar in the near future,” as per the current Net Billing Tariff Proposed Decision.

California does have incentives for community solar, but few actual projects have been built. Programs like the Community Solar Green Tariff program that allow disadvantaged communities to benefit from utility-scale clean energy and receive a 20 percent discount on their energy bills inadvertently favor large, for-profit developers, said Ben Airth, senior distributed generation policy manager at the Center for Sustainable Energy. That means that the actual long-term profits from community solar don’t go to the community. In addition, many of the related advantages, like job creation, end up benefiting large solar developers rather than smaller and often more diverse businesses.

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For community solar to effectively redistribute the benefits of renewables, both in the short and long term, it needs to be owned by the community, said Crystal Huang, co-founder and president of People Power Solar Cooperative. The biggest beneficiary of the energy transition is not the consumers who can go solar, she told High Country News, but the investors who are investing in the transition. “And if we’re talking about equity, you need to allow the consumers to become investors, especially low-income communities,” she said.

Huang’s organization worked last year with other groups, including the California Environmental Justice Alliance, to try to get community ownership of solar into the net energy metering proposal as part of a larger testimony submitted to CPUC on behalf of the California Solar & Storage Association, a group representing more than 600 businesses that work on solar energy production and services. But community solar was not included in CPUC’s proposed decision.

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Without an intentional focus on and investments in community solar, Huang believes that many low-income and communities of color could be left out of the transition altogether. California’s current debate over raising rates only skims the surface of a much larger equity issue that needs to be addressed, especially in a future where both energy infrastructure and access to energy will be challenged by climate change. “If we’re really talking about climate justice, if we’re really talking about shifting power,” Huang said, “then we are talking about a completely different grid that will address the reality we’re seeing today in 2022.”

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