Local clean energy brings social justice forward

A community solar advocate describes Maryland's new availability, through recent state law and Public Service Commission regulation, of low-cost home solar power for many households for which it was previously out of reach.

 /By Armando Gaetaniello/ I was astonished to learn, more than a year ago, how disproportionately more impacted from environmental damages are certain ethnic or social groups. This applies broadly across the US, and here in Maryland and the DC metro area as well. What our economy discards in landfills, burns in fossil fuel power plants or in incinerators is readily converted into air or water pollution impacting those that live nearby the responsible facilities. This crisis originated the Environmental Justice movement.

Due to various historic reasons, the residents most affected are often low to moderate income households or people of color. They suffer the brunt of our unsustainable practices, those being the “drill-baby-drill” or the “produce-consume-waste” models. This is why lot of groups have been raising awareness about so-called environmental racism. The term is scary, it speaks to unhealed wounds, and unfortunately summarizes the reality pretty well. A responsible society cannot turn a blind eye on the social dimension of environmental impacts.

Not only the population most affected is too often disadvantaged, it is also shut out of the clean energy revolution that is sweeping our nation.  In fact, if we truly care about the environment, we need to make sure that solutions are inclusive and suitable for every demographic group. Until now though, most answers to environmental issues have not targeted the whole population equally, thereby perpetuating the foundations to environmental racism. It’s clear that we can’t go on like this.

Let’s take for example clean, renewable energy supply. Although its price has decreased consistently, it has always been considered a luxury service, for which you have to pay a premium price. That market has targeted the affluent ones or at least those in the middle class. As if avoiding pollution is a treat that some of us can indulge in. As if not getting asthma or lung cancer would be a service for fortunate ones. How did we happen to accept the idea that this is the way it should be? Does clean energy really have to be more expensive than dirty fossil fuels or nuclear power? I don’t think so.

Similarly, getting solar onto the rooftop of a household is another “niche” market. Pretty much any solar installation implies that the homeowner has a good credit score, a roof in good condition (new or refurbished), south oriented, not shaded, and most of the times the upfront capital to spend. It’s definitely not something that a person with a working class wage can afford. It’s also not for people that live in apartments or rent a house. Because of these pre-requisites, we believe, only a household with stable assets and good income could take advantage of solar.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: those who have chosen already clean energy are helping the environment, the climate and the society they live in. Now we need to step up and create a marketplace in which everyone can participate. In fact, this is all about to change in Maryland, as it has already happened in other states (Massachusetts, Colorado, and Minnesota are the best examples so far).

Today, any electricity customer in Maryland is empowered to choose a local solar project that will not impact anyone’s health. I am referring to the recent regulations promulgated by the Public Service Commission and to the bill enabling community solar that was signed into law last year. It’ll also help ratepayers have forecastable and more affordable rates. Yes, you read that right, shared solar systems can offer you kWh rates that are lower than your utility - while being predictable as the sun produces free fuel for us to harness.

In short, any Maryland electricity customer can now buy clean power generated from a local solar array (located in the same service territory of the customer). Any ratepayer can now sign up for a portion of a large solar array (and the power produced by it). The size of this portion will depend on each household’s electricity needs. The clean power purchased will be reimbursed on the utility bill at the retail price that the utility charges ratepayers normally. A solar subscriber will then only pay the utility if the solar array has not produced enough electricity to completely offset the bill. As mentioned, the kWh rate paid for the clean power generated will be lower than the utility’s kWh rate used to reimburse the subscriber. That is how each household can save money. This law basically levels the playing field by allowing any household to access clean power from a local host site, without any installation or down payment needed. It empowers anyone to contribute to our clean energy future, no matter if you have a good roof or not. It will also help less affluent households lower their bills.

And from my perspective, solar energy should be enjoyed first and foremost by those that have been shut out until now. Participating in a clean power project while lowering the electricity bill is a powerful combination that was missing up until now. Low to moderate income communities should take advantage of this as other people in the state have already saved money through individual solar installations. Community solar changes the rules of the game by putting forth a very inclusive model. All neighborhoods can now get electricity that does not have negative effects on human health or the environment.

Demanding safer, healthier communities “is the continuation of the civil rights movement”, said Dr Sacoby Wilson, Assistant Professor, Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH) at the University of Maryland. I believe that as well. Also, environmental justice doesn’t only concern the burden of impacts experienced by minorities. It also comes down to disempowerment of the same minorities, as these are not included in the planning of their towns. They have little say about the process behind local land use and land tenure. So how about reversing the situation and start planning for your own local clean energy facility? We can build communities, provide green jobs, and strengthen local economies through solar power development. Let’s do that together, and free your neighborhood from fossil fuel dependency (and its impacts). Environmental and social justice organizations can build support for this important shift.

Underserved populations are more affected by local environmental impacts driven by outdated energy generation. They would also be those to gain the most now that the tide is turning. One of the responses to inequity and climate change is to build grassroots demand for local clean power, including community solar installations, for the advancement of a whole community.

Armando Gaetaniello is Outreach Associate for Neighborhood Sun