Solar Equality in California

Photo from Grid Alternatives

Solar energy generation in California far exceeds that of any other state, producing enough solar energy to power over seven million homes. Residential solar makes up the majority of recent CA solar projects, and panels on neighborhood roofs are becoming more and more common across the state.

However, there are serious concerns regarding who exactly is enjoying the benefits of solar power in California. A 2019 study by the organization Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy analyzed the distribution of California solar and mapped solar projects to areas identified as disadvantaged by the state’s environmental justice methodology (CalEnviroScreen). The researchers found that disadvantaged communities had very low rates of solar adoption. They identified various issues that prevent such communities from accessing solar, which range from income struggles to language barriers. Another recent study by scientists at UCLA, which focused on LA, specifically, found that solar panels were mainly installed on large, expensive homes that already used a lot of energy. Across the country, race has also been shown to be a deciding factor in solar adoption. A UC Berkeley and Tufts University study found that majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are the least likely to have any solar development. The authors of all these studies indicated that new targeted programs would be required to encourage and facilitate solar adoption in disadvantaged communities.

California does have numerous programs that are designed to introduce solar power into lower-income neighborhoods. Some of these programs include the Single-Family Affordable Homes program (SASH), the Multi-Family Affordable Homes program (MASH), and the Disadvantaged Communities Single-Family Affordable Homes program (DAC-SASH). Both SASH and MASH are considered the first of their kind in the country — dedicated solar programs created for low-income households. They offer fixed up-front incentives to subsidize solar power and focus on homes that are designated as “affordable housing” under California law. For SASH, homeowners must make 80% or less than the area median income. The DAC-SASH program built on the establishment of SASH, with the added parameter that participants had to come from a location that was established as a Disadvantaged Community by the state. Currently, the MASH program is not accepting new applications, and the SASH/MASH renewal passed in 2016 only extends funding through 2021. New programs will be needed to keep solar power from being inaccessible to disadvantaged and low-income communities.

Based on the research data mentioned above, even these unprecedented programs have not done enough to increase equity in California solar power. So what can policymakers do to ensure that more people have access to the growing solar market?

There is no easy answer, but a variety of approaches will be needed in order to make sustainable change. The Low Income Solar Policy Guide, a collaborative project by Grid Alternatives, Vote Solar, and the Center for Solar Inclusion, lays out some guidelines for successful low-income solar programs. Some of the factors that they believe are key in order for a program to accomplish its goals include community engagement, consumer protection to prevent predatory lending, and easy integration of solar into existing energy systems. The Guide encourages the use of multiple policy tools, such as rebates, technical assistance, tax credits, and production-based incentives.

Addressing the problem may also entail expanding the use of diverse types of solar. Other areas, such as Washington D.C and Colorado, have invested in more community solar projects in low-income neighborhoods. Community solar projects can be useful in disadvantaged communities, where most people rent rather than own their homes. Another essential aspect of low-income solar policy is workforce development. In Illinois, the Future Energy Jobs Act (passed in 2017) develops multiple pathways for increasing work opportunities in the solar energy industry. One of their projects devotes four million dollars a year to community solar job training groups that have diversity as a focus.

Outside of the state government, non-profit organizations have an important role to play in low-income solar energy projects. In California, Grid Alternatives is the non-profit partner that manages the current low-income solar programs on behalf of the state. Several other non-profits in the state also focus on low-income solar, providing both funding and additional resources. Another way that non-profits have got involved is by installing solar for local organizations. Re-Volv Solar, based in San Francisco, helps non-profits across the state and country go solar with financing and other support. The idea behind these initiatives is that introducing solar energy into a community by way of a familiar group (such as a church or an art center) makes solar more accessible to everyone else in the community by setting an example.

California has made great strides in the use of solar energy and continues to be a model for the rest of the country, but addressing the inequalities in the current system is essential to move forward with solar energy in the future. California has the opportunity to be a leader in low-income solar, and with all of the developments happening in the sector currently, new approaches will likely continue to be created, tested, and implemented to make sure the benefits of solar are available to everyone.

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UC Berkeley ‘21

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Renée Serota

Renée Serota

UC Berkeley ‘21

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