Guest Op-Ed: Solar for all-Building a more equitable energy system


Harnessing sunshine to save on electricity is a powerful thing for families living paycheck to paycheck. But, for many, solar and other renewable energy options historically haven’t been on the table, due to cost or lack of access.

New York’s recently announced ‘shared renewables’ policy moves us closer to changing that, allowing families or businesses that cannot put solar on their roof to band together and reap the benefits of renewable energy. We need to ensure that this promise is fulfilled for the neediest New Yorkers.

Those who stand to benefit most from lower-cost solar energy are families struggling to make ends meet. Burdened with some of the highest fossil fuels electricity rates in the U.S., growing numbers of New Yorkers are forced to choose between paying their utility bills, putting food on their tables or taking care of health care needs. Nearly 277,000 households saw their electricity service cut off last year for nonpayment.

With innovating financing options, it is now possible for some homeowners install rooftop solar panels and save on electricity bills from day one. Yet, most disadvantaged families in New York City are renters who do not control their roofs. Even for low-income homeowners out there, solar financing options typically require a good credit history, disqualifying many.

New York’s newly approved shared renewables program is changing that by empowering millions of homes and businesses to plug into the sun for the first time. Renters, families and businesses in multi-unit buildings, and homeowners with shaded roofs will soon be able to be part of a shared solar project located somewhere else in their community and receive credit on their utility bill for the clean power produced — much as if those panels were on their own roof. Notably, the program will prioritize applications for projects where one-fifth of the members are low-income households.

Now that we have the policy, we need action. We cannot let this opportunity pass us by to build a more equitable energy system.

In Brooklyn, we’re moving quickly to bring this policy into reality, starting with our Renewable and Sustainable Energy Taskforce (ReSET). For example, in Sunset Park, two local non-profit organizations – UPROSE and Solar One – are coming together to help local low-income families save on energy bills with pollution-free sunshine.

Sunset Park has historically faced disproportionate environmental and health burdens including five out-of-date power plants, a sludge transfer facility, a bus depot and dozens of brownfield sites. Emissions from traditional power plants are a quiet scourge in neighborhoods like it nationwide: causing sickness, taking lives, and contributing to cycles of poverty in communities that can least afford it. Emergency room visits for pollution-related asthma are five times more frequent in our poorest neighborhoods compared to their affluent counterparts.

Now, in one of these impacted neighborhoods, solar is being put in the hands of families who have the most to gain from a transition to affordable, renewable energy. Their shared solar project will provide lower cost electricity and create an opportunity for local working-class families to directly plug in.

In order to really transform our energy system, we need projects like this in every neighborhood. We need local organizations to step up and organize these projects. We need solar experts to be partners and make sure these projects serve disadvantaged families. We need policymakers to follow through on their promise to create mechanisms that make shared solar work for low-income households, including those who are unable to pay upfront costs or meet traditional credit requirements.

A renewable energy revolution that does not allow for participation from the entire community is incomplete. This new policy is a necessary first step towards renewable energy for all. As we march toward a clean energy system, let us not miss this opportunity to build an energy democracy that empowers every member of our communities to thrive.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.