Community solar: Fighting climate change and income inequality

(Mackenzie Swartz/George Washington University)

Climate change poses a serious, imminent threat to the viability of our ecosystems and species populations, compromising the welfare of current and future generations. High emissions grid infrastructure is one of the leading drivers of this, emitting extremely high levels of CO2 into the atmosphere. Solar technology provides an extremely viable solution to decarbonizing the grid, while still providing the necessary energy to fuel our societies. 


Community solar facility located in the SE quadrant of Washington, D.C. (Mackenzie Swartz/George Washington University) 

The solar industry has a chance to shape the larger narrative on energy justice, and advance social equity by ensuring energy security for all socioeconomic levels. Industry leaders are currently building the market and have the ability to choose the norm of how and for whom it functions. In today’s market, non-profits, renters, and low-income households are being left out of the solar revolution due to financial barriers, misinformation, and lack of opportunity. The market only serves wealthier, more privileged populations, leaving the ones who need solar the most behind.

With less wealth generation, these ostracized groups are often forced to live in older buildings that operate on less efficient heating and cooling systems, resulting in extremely high energy bills. With no respective income to offset this, these struggling residents have to decide whether to put food on the table or pay the bills. Further, the areas of town in which these groups live lack community infrastructure investment and proper resources, making it harder to complete everyday tasks such as commuting to work and getting fresh groceries. Often positioned next to brownfields, these communities also face health and safety risks with restricted access to medical support, poorer air quality, and higher crime rates. Community solar investment has the potential to create cost savings that reduce these financial stresses and channel wealth into the hands of residents, providing them with new jobs and self-sustaining economic revitalization. 

Community solar provides the benefits of renewable energy without imposing the high upfront costs and infrastructure investment necessary for construction. These facilities are built on larger, shared spaces such as an apartment complex, church, community center, or vacant field, with open subscription for renters, non-profits, and low-income residents. Through virtual net-metering, subscribers receive credits on their monthly electric bills based on their share of the overall electricity the solar system generates, allowing them to take advantage of cheaper electricity costs and cleaner energy.

At the forefront of this initiative to advance community solar is the DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU), working with local solar contractors to design and install solar photovoltaic systems at no cost to income-qualified District homeowners. Ted Trabue, Managing Director of the DC Sustainable Energy Utility, says that the DCSEU is “making sure that our low-income community is adequately served,” by providing access to solar technology, from which these communities were originally isolated. 

This incredible work is possible through the Sustainable Energy Trust Fund (SETF), which is a surcharge on all electric and natural gas utility ratepayers in the District of Columbia. This fund directly finances solar installations in DC by incentivizing solar contractors to participate in such programs through monetary compensation to assist with project costs, while also allowing them to keep all Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs). 

At the program's inception, there were less than a dozen solar installations in Wards 7 and Ward 8, the city’s poorest neighborhoods, while the wealthier, Western side of the city had over 1000 installations. That is why the DCSEU is “installing these systems specifically on income-qualified residents, those who are earning 60% or less of area median income, absolutely free of charge to the resident,” says Mr. Trabue, to directly target this inequity. 

The District’s support of community solar has promoted energy efficiency, economic development, and local job creation. But most importantly, this program is helping low-income residents first. Shelley Cohen, the Director of Solar Programs for the DCSEU, comments that “Some homeowners are making decisions between critical items such as food or prescriptions and keeping the lights on. I am so glad that we can provide some relief for some homeowners from the cost of their utility bills and put more money back in their pockets.”

Access to community solar is still limited, as only a number of states have passed encouraging legislation to make this a reality for their residents. However, this is changing fast, and community solar can end energy insecurity for all. 

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