The Solar Revolution Is Coming—But It's Skipping Over Communities of Color

A new study shows a startling disparity.

solar panels virginia
Getty ImagesSusan Biddle/The Washington Post/Getty Images

While the United States has seen in homes using photovoltaic (PV) solar energy over the last several years, this growth has been uneven. According to , fewer African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods are gaining the benefits of solar power, even when controlling for home ownership and income level.

“Solar power is crucial to meeting the climate goals presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but we can and need to deploy solar more broadly so that it benefits all people, regardless of race and ethnicity,” says Deborah Sunter, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts and the study’s lead author, in a . “Solar energy can be a resource for climate protection and social empowerment.”

The study used Google's , which collects data from Google Maps to analyze the solar potential of neighborhoods as well as how many solar projects exist in any given area.

“Advances in remote sensing and in ‘big data’ science enable us not only to take a unique look at where solar is deployed but also to combine that with census and demographic data to chart who gets to benefit from the solar energy revolution,” says , Ph.D., a research faculty at UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group and the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE).

What they found was a clear disparity. Black-majority neighborhoods, according to the study, have installed 69 percent less rooftop PV than neighborhoods with no single race or ethnic majority. Hispanic-majority neighborhoods have installed 30 percent less rooftop PV than no-majority neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, white-majority neighborhoods have installed 37 percent more solar panels than neighborhoods with no ethnic majority.

project sunroof detroit
A Sunroof estimate for Detroit, Michigan, which census records shows to be 82.7 percent black or African-American.
Project Sunroof

While solar prices have fallen over the last several years, there are a number of factors that can inhibit a homeowner from installing panels. These core fundamentals like the shape of the house—it's easier to build a solar panel on a one-story house with a precise 30-degree slope, for example.

From there, the panels themselves present a choice: Higher-quality PV panels are more expensive, and companies generally prefer for customers to buy them in bulk. While that can work in favor of larger infrastructure projects, it's tougher for a homeowner. A solar company could offer a bulk package of $0.75 per watt, for example, while individual PV panels could cost $1 per watt. That cost adds up when powering a home.

A Green New Deal?

The solution? Government intervention on the federal and local level, at least according to Nick Liberati, spokesperson for , an online solar marketplace developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy. He put it this way in an email to Seniorhelpline:

One of the first places to start is for more cities and towns with predominantly African-American and Hispanic residents to launch municipal-sponsored solar programs that encourage their residents to learn about and shop for solar. These programs can provide free access to online tools and resources so that every resident, no matter where they live, can make a well-informed switch to solar energy.

This general idea, that we need an active effort to push the benefits of solar beyond their market-based boundaries, is increasingly alluded to through the newly popularized concept of a "Green New Deal." The issue is that it typically doesn't get much more explicit than that. Stephen O'Hanlon of the Sunrise Movement, which is helping to lead the charge behind the idea, explained the Green New Deal to Seniorhelpline in an email as "a commitment to tackling poverty and racial injustice as we transform our economy to 100 percent renewable energy," but absent any specifics. And that, of course, is where the trouble begins.

For Liberati and EnergySage, the Green New Deal is a chance to create a marketplace similar to one that's drawn both praise and controversy over the last decade of American politics: the healthcare marketplace at the core of the American Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"Similar to what President Obama’s HealthCare.gov marketplace did for healthcare, the Department of Energy could offer an online solar marketplace for all American homeowners to easily access. Such a program would make it easy for anyone to comparison-shop for rooftop solar online while increasing transparency, fostering greater competition and driving down prices, thus increasing solar access as a result."

A showed that access to such a marketplace could increase solar panel adoption by as much as 104 percent. Further policies, based on ones that are already in existence, could help extend the benefits more directly to marginalized communities, Liberati argues:

"Back in 2014, the Department of Energy launched the '' pilot program to help transitioning military veterans become certified solar installers. The result was over 500 new solar installers across ten different states. ... An analogous program could be launched that facilitates more black and Hispanic candidates going through solar training and setting up their own minority-owned solar companies in their hometowns and neighborhoods. This idea could have the dual benefit of stimulating more small business growth and also increasing the availability of solar in minority-dominant neighborhoods."

But while increased adoption is good, it can come with unforeseen consequences. When a California mandate to add solar panels to all homes was announced, it could make housing more expensive, exacerbating a crisis that is already disproportionately affecting the marginalized. Any money to subsidize the cost of expensive panels, meanwhile, will have to come from somewhere, and though it may be politically difficult to extract it from energy companies whose traditional business models are making climate change worse, in Frances show the danger of paying for green policy out of the pockets of the working poor.

For now, solar growth is rampant throughout the country, which is necessary and good. We'll need all the panels we can get to transition away from fossil fuels and fight back against climate change in the very limited time we have left. For that, we'll need panels everywhere.

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