Bringing the Solar Boom to All People: A Recap of the 2014 Solar Symposium

The solar industry is booming.

Photovoltaic panel costs are plummeting, becoming 80% cheaper over the past 5 years. Over 143,000 Americans work in the industry, and solar plays a key role in the transition away from fossil fuels. A solar unit is installed every 2.5 minutes, revealing the solar industry’s tremendous growth rate of 42% over the past year.

The key question of the day: people want to go solar with their homes, but can all people afford it?

Low-income families are statistically less likely to own their own roofs, have limited access to financing, are more likely to live in older buildings and may not pay utility bills directly. Bringing solar to all people, independent of income, is a pressing challenge.

On September 23, The George Washington University’s Solar Institute’s 2014 Solar Symposium, “Using Solar Energy to Generate Wealth in Lower Income Communities,” sparked a compelling dialogue engaging a community of leaders in the solar industry. The day explored the challenges and solutions in bringing the solar boom to everyone.

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, stated the day’s message perfectly: “I think solar is the people’s power. It is the people’s power of choice. And now what we need to do as an industry is make solar available to all people who want to install solar.”

Solar for everyone is important - here are five key things you need to know:

1.) Solar is “the people’s power,” which all people should have access to

“There is a fundamental shift that is occurring in the renewable industry, particularly solar. It’s not just residential customers. It’s also commercial, industrial. This is very much grassroots. There is a great future for solar in the country. We must have commitments to action; not just a great dialogue.” — Jerry Bloom, partner and chair of Energy Practice, Winston & Strawn LLC

Solar is being adopted on a much wider range than in the past; it’s no longer only being used in the residential community. Churches, universities and other non-residential buildings should have the opportunity to install solar panels because it is a cost-effective solution to reducing energy bills and decreasing the carbon footprint.

But how do we reduce this cost for low-income communities? Read on.

2.) Solar is a cost-effective solution to reducing energy bills and strengthens family empowerment

Solar is a cost-effective solution to transitioning away from fossil fuels. It gives families the opportunity to generate their own electricity, lower their energy bills, reduce their carbon footprints and bring jobs to their communities.

“People have the chance to generate their own electricity. There is no better concept to be American. People are going to support solar because it empowers people to lower their cost and reduce their carbon footprint.” — Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association

Solar also provides an opportunity to build wealth in low-income communities. If all low-income households went solar, over $20 billion in electricity value would flow into these communities while cutting costs.

In order to keep this cost low, we need to scale up manufacturing, which lowers the per unit cost for solar. Additionally, as more solar companies enter the industry, prices will continue to drop. We need to create a private-public partnership -- utility companies need to come to the table.

Efficiency is also critical; the bottom lines of the families being served are of utmost importance. Minimizing the upfront payment required to install solar panels will be attractive to low income families who need to think about immediate cash flow.

But what about people who can’t afford to own their own solar equipment or those who don’t have rooftops?

3.) Families don’t have to own solar equipment to have access to the clean energy

People can have access to solar energy without owning the equipment! For low income families, this point is key. Families can lease solar panels for their homes; in fact, 80% of solar energy is leased. Utilities also work with landlords to install solar panels on apartments and complexes so that people who are not homeowners can have access to the benefits of solar energy.

Shared solar can also be employed. Shared solar is an exciting concept that has been successfully addressing the solar needs of low income families that do not own their own roofs. The concept is simple: cooperatives build solar panels in open spaces and utility customers, who do not have the finances to install their own panels, purchase a share of the solar panels and receive the energy that is generated.

“Sharing solar allows renters and people with shaded rooms to go solar. It’s all about how we can do this in a way that provides savings. Allows them to provide commercial job training. There are a lot of opportunities there.” — Erica Mackie, co-founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives

Ten states currently have a shared solar policy. It’s been working great in Colorado and California, and it’s being implemented in Washington, D.C. soon.

So, what can the government do?

4.) Develop state and local policies that provide universal access to clean energy

Fight against net metering, look at the benefits of savings that solar would provide, publicize this to the public and think about new ways to expand. These are the steps in creating meaningful solar policies for low-income communities.

The solar industry has made significant progress in the past ten years, driven by federal and state policies, and private sector ingenuity. The industry has also stepped up to the plate and improved technology. This teamwork needs to continue to have the biggest effect on helping low income communities have access to solar.

"Bringing solar to low income people is also about policy. We must think about policy in the affordable housing unit. We need to see how we use private sector solutions, private capital and private ingenuity.” — Todd Foley, senior vice president of the American Council on Renewable Energy

5.) Solar is sexy! It’s time to educate the public.

We need to educate people on the facts about renewable energy and solar. This will make big things happen for the industry.

“There is a way to present a project to an owner that can help them get behind it because they see the benefit or incentive. It’s all about risk and reward.” — Jared Lang

People are set in their ways and it’s sometimes challenging for them to step outside of the box and make a change; it’s sometimes generational. We need to think about what motivates people -- young or old -- to try something new, to take the risk and to think about solar. We need to make sure that they are comfortable and know that they will be saving money with this technology -- solar is often cheaper in many places than natural gas!

There are ways the solar industry can act now:

  • Standardize solar systems. This will make the solar process as simple and quick as possible so that people can build confidence in it.
  • Keep talking! There is no solution at any single level. Everyone must work together, and we must share the facts.
  • Get the regulators on board; look at existing policies and see how we can make new ones that are smarter and more flexible. Educate the regulators about the solar industry!
  • Leverage private capital and fill the market gap where the private industry won’t go.
  • Provide consistency within the industry, and provide motivation for people to go solar.
  • Continue to think about scale and other ways to reduce costs for low income families.

Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, summed up the day with a key message about the need for innovations, creative thinking and leadership for the future of the solar industry in low income communities: “We must deliver services in a better way. People love renewables. They want them. We must find ways to provide access. We need programs to be successful because success breeds success. We need this to attract attention and then drive that attention.”

To learn more about the 2014 Solar Symposium and bringing solar energy to low income communities, visit Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #solar4all

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