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Solar Justice: Ensuring Equitable Access to Clean Energy

By Philip Warburg

Triple-decker homes in Boston
Triple-decker homes in Boston. Photo credit: Piotrus

In his newly released $2 trillion energy and infrastructure plan, Joe Biden set a nationwide goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. Solar power figures prominently in his plan, but it’s not clear whether low-income households will share in this historic opportunity. 

With racial injustice and economic inequality gaining long-overdue attention, we need to look at the gap between established homeowners who have solar power on their homes and people living in more modest circumstances who can’t afford this climate-friendly investment. 

Anyone flying into Boston’s Logan Airport can’t help noticing the sea of triple-decker buildings that line so many neighborhood streets in and around the city. Built as multi-family worker housing more than a century ago, these hardy structures share a feature that bodes well for our region’s solar future: flat, uncluttered roofs seldom shaded by trees or adjacent buildings. 

Why are we letting this readily accessible renewable energy resource go to waste? The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a state agency, has just issued a Triple Decker Design Challenge aimed at “transitioning these iconic New England dwellings into high-performing, low-carbon buildings.” Though the Challenge calls for deep energy retrofits, strangely missing is any reference to solar power.

More encouraging is the Mass Solar Loan program, which offers low-income borrowers a 1.5 percent interest rate discount on their solar loans plus a thirty percent reduction in loan principal once their solar arrays begin operating. Incentives such as these, if adopted on a national scale, could go a long way toward bringing solar power’s benefits to millions of low-income households.

But what about the homeowner with too low a credit rating to qualify for a commercial loan? Outright grants should be made available, allowing these households to enjoy vastly reduced electric bills while benefiting the planet with lower carbon emissions. This approach was pioneered by GRIDAlternatives, a nonprofit founded in California with generous state support. Relying heavily on volunteer crews whom they train as solar installers, GRIDAlternatives has brought free solar power to more than 16,000 financially challenged single-family and multi-family households.

Much more ambitious in scope is the District of Columbia’s Solar for All program, which aspires to bring the benefits of locally generated solar power to 100,000 low-to-moderate income families. Income-qualified households that have access to their own rooftops can apply for grants to install their own solar arrays. Renters and others lacking their own solar-suitable rooftop access can subscribe to a community solar plan that credits their monthly electric bills with a share of the output of a solar facility in the DC area.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has projected that residential and commercial rooftops could meet up to thirty-nine percent of America’s present-day electricity needs using photovoltaic (PV) panels that were standard when the study was published in 2016. Using today’s more efficient PV modules, NREL estimates that rooftop solar could supply half of our nation’s power needs.

Today, we have reached a tiny fraction of that potential: less than one percent of our electricity comes from “distributed” solar installations—rooftops, parking canopies, and moderately scaled ground-mounted arrays. Larger utility-scale solar installations supply only slightly more: about 1.8 percent of electricity sales nationwide.

Vice President Biden’s call for clean electricity by 2035 demands strong and decisive action now. He’s right to call for extending the investment tax credits that have made solar appealing to many homes and businesses, but more must be done to ensure equitable access to this transformative technology. 

Regardless of income, American homeowners should be able to tap the sun beaming down on their roofs.


About the Author 

Philip Warburg, author of Harness the Sun, is a Senior Fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.