In the wake of blackouts driven by extreme weather in Puerto Rico, California, and now Texas, grassroots organizers have repeatedly highlighted the potential for disaster resiliency through community-controlled renewable energy. While right-wing Texas politicians have sought to blame the yet-to-be-enacted Green New Deal — a jobs, energy savings, and clean power initiative — for the outages, aspects of the most progressive versions of the program, like community and rooftop solar energy, are being pushed by leaders from marginalized communities exactly because they will offer better disaster resiliency.
Yet so far, President Joe Biden hasn’t made distributed renewables or rooftop solar a central element of his climate plans, and local efforts have faced major hurdles to scaling up.
As the Biden administration prepares to unveil a sprawling economic recovery and infrastructure bill, a coalition of energy justice advocates are calling for new federal policies that would add up to 30 million homes powered by rooftop and community solar energy.
“We choose rooftop solar and community solar as an intervention in part to build wealth within communities and have it be something that supports local jobs and results in bill savings and keeps those resources as local as possible,” said Hanna Mitchell, Texas program director of Solar United Neighbors, which is leading the 30 Million Solar Homes plan alongside the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Initiative for Energy Justice. Rooftop solar, Mitchell added, also “aids in grid flexibility and resiliency and mitigating peak demand.”
Puerto Rico perhaps represents the most powerful testing ground for distributed solar energy in a crisis. On the island, organizers in the mountaintop community of Adjuntas, led by the environmental justice organization Casa Pueblo, have succeeded in distributing solar panels with storage capacity to dozens of community members with medical needs or who have the capacity to provide resources like refrigeration for neighbors. The idea is that when the grid goes down — which it did for months after Hurricane Maria in 2017 — the people who need electricity most, or who can act as a resource hub, will stay powered.
The system already proved itself effective when earthquakes on the island knocked out power again in 2020. But a campaign called Queremos Sol, or We Want Sun, has faced major barriers in pressuring the commonwealth’s power company to prioritize community solar in its reconstruction plans.
In the contiguous U.S., efforts to expand community solar projects have moved at least as slowly. In California, the East Bay Clean Power Alliance is working to assure solar energy with storage is accessible to polluted, low-income neighborhoods and medically vulnerable community members. The idea is for solar-powered microgrids with storage to create islands of energy that keep essential infrastructure, including medical devices, powered even in the face of heat waves, wildfires, or planned power shutoffs when large utility companies falter. In times of high demand, community members will have a wider array of power sources to pull from, reducing pressure on centralized plants.
In addition to disaster resilience, rooftop solar can address another woe felt by Texas power consumers during the winter-weather crisis: high power bills.
In order to create savings on bills, however, households first need to overcome the cost of the panels and installation, an insurmountable barrier for many — especially renters. The East Bay project is getting around that problem through a unique policy in California that allows for the creation of community choice energy services, which are essentially small, community-controlled power suppliers.
Since organizers succeeded in convincing Alameda County, which covers much of the East Bay, to set up the East Bay Community Energy agency a few years ago, they have developed a business plan that will reinvest rates the agency collects into solar infrastructure for those most vulnerable to the climate crisis and those who have already endured health impacts from nearby fossil fuel infrastructure.
The effort, however, is moving slowly. So far, the East Bay organizers have not yet installed any battery storage that could power vulnerable neighborhoods. “The community choice energy policy was passed in 2002, but the very first community choice program took off in 2010. That is because investor-owned utilities prevented community choice from getting off the ground,” said Jessica Guadalupe Tovar, a staff organizer with the Local Clean Energy Alliance and coordinator of the East Bay Clean Power Alliance.
“Investor-owned utilities prevented community choice from getting off the ground.”
It’s a version of a fight that has played out across the U.S., with the utility industry lobbying to slow the scale-up of distributed renewables. “They fight every year or sneak in language into different bills to try to gut community choice policies,” Tovar said.
Along with the hurdles erected by utilities, organizers face the sheer cost of making distributed power-sourcing work: both installing the solar panels and organizing communities to make the systems accountable and effective take money. Tovar said her organization operates on a shoestring budget with only two part-time paid staff members. “We’ve been advocating for these kind of resilience projects for low-income communities, communities of color, environmental justice communities for well over a decade at least,” said Tovar. “It’s taking a long time for decision-makers to listen.”
That’s why the Green New Deal was proposed: One of the few players in the equation with enough sway and pure spending power to get distributed renewable energy programs off the ground is the federal government.
Biden has promised that the U.S. will be run on 100 percent clean energy by 2035 and will reach net-zero emissions by 2050. He has also introduced environmental justice goals, including a benchmark of 40 percent of benefits from federal investments going to marginalized communities. And he’s formed two separate environmental justice advisory councils.
The path to meeting his goals will be outlined in part by his upcoming economic recovery and infrastructure bill, likely to be unveiled in the coming weeks. It’s unclear, though, how much support will be offered to community solar. Last summer, a task force organized around uniting progressive Democrats behind Biden’s presidential nomination recommended installing 8 million solar roofs and community solar energy systems within five years. There’s no clear indication that Biden is actually moving toward that goal, and meanwhile, a coalition of community solar and energy justice advocates are demanding Biden and Congress go further than that.
Just as extreme cold caused power outages across Texas, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Initiative for Energy Justice, and Solar United Neighbors were in the middle of launching their 30 Million Solar Homes plan. In a 13-page list of demands, the groups proposed a slew of federal government policies and programs that would quickly allow scores of communities to adopt rooftop solar.
Among the proposed actions are changes to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that would help cut low-income communities’ energy bills through community solar; an amendment to a utilities law that would allow for the establishment of community solar programs everywhere; and workforce development programs for underrepresented communities to learn to work with solar energy.
The groups are also pushing for a number of grant programs: a new Energy Department program that would provide $1 billion in funding to marginalized communities over the next five years for rooftop solar; another $1 billion for disaster-resiliency programs centered on distributed solar with storage; $100 million for a new Department of Housing and Urban Development grant program to pay for federally designated low-income housing owners to install solar power (with savings passed on to tenants); and $50 billion in Clean Energy Victory Bonds, modeled on the war bonds issued during World War II, with half the money going to rooftop and community solar projects.
The investments are essential: Without an influx of cash, community and rooftop solar will remain a marginal source of energy even as utilities shift to clean power. Texas is a case in point: While utilities have embraced large-scale renewable energy, community solar projects are just ramping up.
Some researchers have argued that investment in rooftop and community solar, alongside wind and solar farms, offers the most economic pathway to meeting clean energy goals. One recent study found that reducing fossil fuel emissions 95 percent by 2050 — which is basically Biden’s clean energy goal — would be much cheaper with a significant investment in rooftop or community solar. The report, which was funded by pro-solar advocacy groups, found that the development of 247 gigawatts worth of rooftop and local solar power could save energy users $473 billion over focusing on large-scale renewables.
“It’s not just about rooftop solar, but solar in general, and using it as a tool to come out of the economic damage that Covid has caused.”
Those pushing for investment in community solar see it as a means to build economic and physical security that will keep people out of crises that require more expensive government intervention. The moves could also bring economic pandemic relief.
“It’s not just about rooftop solar, but solar in general, and using it as a tool to come out of the economic damage that Covid has caused,” said Yesenia Rivera, Solar United Neighbors’ director of energy equity and inclusion. “It’s policies on community solar and above all workforce development, so we can use solar as a tool for economic development in an equitable and just way.”
In pushing for the 30 Million Solar Homes initiative, Solar United Neighbors pointed to the Sunnyside Energy Community Solar project in Houston as an example of a community solar project with the potential to strengthen neighbors’ resiliency in the face of future extreme weather. The project will place solar panels on the site of a landfill to benefit the surrounding community, which is largely Black and low income.
What’s standing in the way of having lots of projects like it across Texas? “Funding is the biggest hurdle,” said Rivera. “The appetite is there, but the finances are not always there.”