Solar Power To The People: Getting Everyone In On Green Energy

The Obama administration has taken an important step toward ensuring that America’s poorest residents – those who stand to gain the most from reductions in their energy costs – are no longer left out of the green energy boom.

Last week’s announcement of a number of actions by the White House to expand renewable energy access to low- and middle-income households continues a streak of executive actions by President Obama that tackle climate change, and comes in the face of continued Republican resistance to taking substantive Congressional action towards building a green economy.

But what made the announcement noteworthy was its direct response to a missed opportunity for low-income communities highlighted in a recent study from George Washington University’s Solar Institute.

“The rapid decline of solar panel costs in recent years has ushered in a solar boom that has not spread uniformly across the spectrum of U.S. household incomes. Despite being more vulnerable to energy costs, lower income Americans have lagged behind more affluent households in adopting solar and realizing its numerous benefits….

The 49.1 million households that earn less than $40,000 of income per year…account for less than five percent of solar installations.”

As put by Rep. Elijah Cummings, who spoke as part of the White House announcement, “The difference in a monthly bill of $10 or $15 means a lot to the people who live on my block.”

Especially important among the new initiatives is the creation of the National Community Solar Partnership, a collection of private and public resources that aims to expand “community solar,” or solar power installations that provide energy to multiple homes or individuals. Almost 50 percent of households and businesses are renters or don’t have adequate roof space for solar, and thus require community solar arrangements.

The White House also announced that $520 million in philanthropic funds are available to advance community solar energy and energy efficiency projects for low- and middle-income households. It also announced executive actions to expand the availability of low-interest rate loans for solar power installations and increase job training and solar energy education for low-income communities, setting a goal to train 75,000 workers by 2020.

In light of the green energy boom in the U.S., the Obama administration also tripled its goal of installing green energy in federally subsidized housing developments, to 300 megawatts. If met, that would equate to 50,000 households powered through renewable energy sources.

Together, the actions will help close the energy gap between the rich and the poor. They will also put the U.S. on track to fulfilling its international pledge, announced with Brazil two weeks ago, to get 20 percent of its total electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

The U.S. has made significant progress in its transformation to a green economy. Since 2008. wind and solar energy capacity has tripled. But renewable sources still only contribute a small fraction of all energy used – less than 7 percent in 2014.

On the same day as the White House announcement, presidential candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced the “Low Income Solar Act of 2015,” which would devote significant federal grants and loans to expanding low-income household access to renewable energy. It has little chance of passing due to Republican opposition, but would constitute the best next step towards ending the green energy access gap.

Why do Republican lawmakers continue to roadblock efforts to invest in a green economy? They use a healthy mix of climate change denial, poor-people-shaming, and the misguided logic that the free market can correct all wrongs, despite clear evidence that investments in green energy both reduce energy costs and create jobs. It’s no surprise that these Republicans receive millions of dollars from Big Oil.

Now Big Oil is trying to convince African Americans that they will be harmed by new regulations and government intervention. Just see this study from the National Black Chamber of Commerce, an organization largely financed by Big Oil, claiming new EPA regulations will hurt black and Hispanic communities. “The big polluters desperately want Black and Hispanic voters to believe that the president’s clean air protections will raise our power bills and cost us jobs,” writes Van Jones, president and founder of Green For All, an initiative that works to build an inclusive green economy.

This is an outright lie; climate regulations have consistently shown to cost less than expected and produce net economic gains. African Americans in fact stand most to gain from tougher regulations. Due to practices that constitute environmental racism, big polluting companies are disproportionately located next to minority and low-income populations. They adversely affect the health of these groups, costing lives and money. An American Lung Association study found that 13,000 Americans die each year due to pollution from coal-fired power plants, and a disproportionate percentage of those deaths are among low-income and minorities. As Jones put it, “Our kids literally can’t breathe.” Regulation forces these companies to clean up their practices and stops environmental racism.

Obama’s latest efforts are a step forward. But Big Oil-funded lies have prevented more the significant actions necessary to truly revolutionize our energy sector and become a green energy leader. We have heard presidential candidates talk passionately about economic inequality and injustice. It’s high time they give environmental inequality the same attention.

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