Providing solar energy to low-income households

A recent report revealed that 80 percent of existing energy infrastructure in Massachusetts is located in or within 1 mile of low-income communities, especially communities of color. This is not surprising – the same is true of many polluting lands, such as hazardous waste landfills, incinerators and highways. The case came to a head in East Boston with a lawsuit the Conservation Law Foundation filed on Monday, arguing that the Eversource electric substation permit should be invalidated. That’s why a report by several interest groups recommends changes to the process of siting electricity infrastructure so that environmental justice communities are not forced to shoulder the burden of providing energy. It is equally important that these communities receive their fair share of renewable energy solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

More than 4 million rooftop solar systems have been installed in the United States, and Massachusetts is one of the five largest states. While this is a commendable achievement, policies to promote rooftop solar mainly subsidize the wealthy who own homes and can make the initial investment. Installing rooftop solar on single-family homes is simple – get subsidies, install panels, and reap the benefits of generating your own electricity and selling the surplus back to the utility.

Community solar has the potential to bring solar energy to environmental justice communities. This is a way for customers who rent or live in multifamily buildings that cannot install solar panels, or who cannot afford the upfront cost of “subscribing” to solar energy, to offset the energy they use on a pay-as-you-go basis. -Ready-made, no upfront costs. Community solar allows multiple parties to share the results (and benefits) of a large solar project.

However, low- and moderate-income households make up only a small percentage of households using public solar power. Most projects are dominated by institutional, commercial and individual clients who can afford it.

Several projects in Boston are trying to change that.

The Boston Community Solar Cooperative was formed on the heels of the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in late 2022 to take advantage of the provisions of the new tax credit law. It offers members the opportunity to acquire or purchase shares in a solar cooperative. The cooperative generates revenues from the sale of electricity at a rate lower than local utility fees and shares profits with shareholder members. The cooperative is currently developing a rooftop solar installation at the Dorchester Food Co-op and hopes to replicate this approach in other Boston neighborhoods.

Another initiative is Solar Helping Ignite Neighborhood Economies, an initiative of Rare, an international conservation organization. The initiative is funded by a Community Power Accelerator award from the U.S. Department of Energy and a Massachusetts Clean Energy Center Equity Employee Training Implementation Grant. SHINE seeks to increase solar and electric vehicle production in low-income communities, develop community solar to reduce utility bills, and recruit, train and support residents of these communities to find jobs in the solar industry. Action for Boston Community Development, known for its warming work in Boston communities, is providing solar job training through SHINE so that low-income community residents can benefit from green economy jobs.

To support more local solar projects serving environmental justice communities and meet the Commonwealth’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 85 percent by 2050, the Legislature must pass H.4503, which establishes a statewide goal to install 10 gigawatts of solar energy by 2050. 2030.

The equity aspect of the legislation is that it expands access to solar energy, including community solar, to households with incomes at or below 80 percent of the area median income or 200 percent of the federal poverty level. It also simplifies income verification and removes a key barrier to signing up for community solar by making it impossible for solar developers to conduct credit checks on potential participants, thus removing another barrier to solar for lower-income residents.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced $7 billion Solar for All program will provide $156 million to Massachusetts to finance solar energy projects, including community solar, in low-income and disadvantaged communities. Currently, almost all community solar projects in Massachusetts are located in rural areas, and changes need to be made to state solar policy to encourage communities to use solar energy in urban areas. Adopting the recommendations of Governor Maura Healey’s Commission on Siting and Permitting for Energy Infrastructure and updating the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program is critical to unlocking community solar systems that serve all communities in Massachusetts.

Listing these needed policy changes that combine environmental justice with community solar means appreciating that there is no silver bullet to achieving equity. This will require a change in our mentality, which in turn will lead us to a set of solutions.

Joan Fitzgerald is a professor at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. Gregory King is the managing director of TSK Energy Solutions.