California Finding New Ways To Extend Benefits Of Solar To Low-Income, Minority Communities

October 8, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed
Joseph Sohm /

The California legislature has sent a bill to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk that aims to extend the benefits of solar energy to communities that often have no access to clean energy technologies.

Assembly Bill 693 would create the Multi-Family Affordable Housing Solar Roofs program, which would be authorized to spend $100 million a year for at least 10 years to install solar panels on 210,000 affordable housing units in the Golden State.

It’s estimated that beneficiaries of the program would save more than $38 million per year on their electricity bills and receive another $19 million a year in solar tax credits and other benefits, a total of $1.8 billion over the life of the program, according to Al Jazeera America.

Other programs already in place in California have led to the deployment of solar in communities across the state that otherwise would have had little access to solar energy.

Existing law requires the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to spend no less than 10 percent of funding for a comprehensive statewide solar program, the California Solar Initiative, on the installation of solar energy systems on low-income residential housing, which led to the creation of the Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) program in 2008.

According to the CPUC, MASH has led to the installation of 22.7 MW of solar capacity across 353 projects serving multi-family affordable housing communities statewide. An additional $54 million in incentive funding for the MASH program was approved earlier this year, with a goal of installing 35 megawatts of additional solar capacity.

Another key program, the New Solar Homes Partnership, is administered by the California Energy Commission and is also a part of the California Solar Initiative. The NSHP provides funds and other incentives to home builders in order to encourage the construction of new, energy-efficient solar homes.

The NSHP provides incentives for multi-family affordable housing projects where at least 20 percent of the project units are dedicated for extremely low- to moderate-income households for at least 10 years. The program had installed 14,100 solar energy systems with a total generating capacity of 45 MW.

Per the Energy Commission, the majority of solar installations took place in Southern California, where 27 percent of new single-family homes with building permits issued in 2012 have solar systems installed. While funds from the NSHP do go to multifamily affordable housing units, 14 times more solar energy systems have been installed on single-family homes, the commission says.

“The Legislature has supported policies such as MASH and NSHP because they are designed to give an extra boost to a market that is difficult to transform,” California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia said in a statement. “These programs also support the financial innovation that must occur in order to ensure that solar is a mainstream alternative for not just a few, but for all communities in California.”

Private sector initiatives moving environmental justice forward as well

It’s not just the public sector looking for new ways to get solar into low-income and minority communities, however. SolarCity has announced a new service that will finance and install solar power systems on rooftops and carports of affordable housing communities, utilizing funds from both MASH and NHSP.

The electricity generated by SolarCity’s systems is distributed among common areas and individual housing units, the company says, and residents receive credits on their electricity bills based on the amount of solar electricity allocated to their units, which is calculated thanks to a policy called virtual net metering.

SolarCity’s new service joins a growing list of community solar models that extend cost-saving opportunities of solar energy to renters, who, unlike homeowners, have not had access to solar energy in the past.

Scott Sarem, CEO of Everyday Energy, a developer and advocate for the economically disadvantaged partnering with SolarCity to provide the new service to low-income communities, said in a statement, “We expect the collaboration between SolarCity and Everyday Energy to make it possible for a broad range of multifamily affordable housing communities to save money on energy costs that can instead be spent on food, healthcare and other critical needs.”

Bringing solar to low-income and minority communities is without a doubt a victory for environmental justice in California, but the state still has a long way to go before all communities are treated equally.

One of the most glaring examples of environmental injustice in the state has to do with who is being forced to live with the impacts of fracking, which was found to have “significant and unavoidable impacts” that “cannot be mitigated” by California oil and gas regulators earlier this year. Fracking was used as an extraction method at half of the roughly 300 new wells drilled every month in California over the past decade.

More than 90 percent of Californians who live within a mile of an active oil or gas well are people of color, according to a recent report, which also found that children of color make up nearly 84 percent of students attending schools within a mile of a well using fracking or another extreme extraction technique.

In total, some 5.4 million Californians live within a mile of one of the state’s 82,000 active oil and gas wells, according to the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, and more than a third of them — 1.8 million people — live in communities that are already overburdened by pollution.

In other words, the benefits of clean, green solar energy can’t reach these communities quickly enough.

Mike Gaworecki

Mike Gaworecki is an activist, writer, and musician who lives in San Francisco. He is the online campaigner for RAN's Forests program.

Tags: community energy solutions, equality, Renewable Energy, Solar Energy