By Autumn Saign
The mission statement behind our community solar work is “clean and equitable energy for all,” but it’s more than just a catchy motto. Distributed and renewable energy systems, such as community solar gardens, are one of the (many) stepping stones towards energy equity and environmental justice.
Energy isn’t Neutral
The United States’ energy system is highly reliant on fossil fuels. These practices accelerate climate change, perpetuate environmental injustice, and contribute to financial and racial disparities. The negative impacts of fossil fuels are unequally distributed throughout the nation. Polluting facilities, such as coal plants, are more likely to be situated in or near minority communities due to patterns of systemic racism and housing segregation. Because of this exposure to pollution, people of color experience significantly worse health conditions and are at greater risk for premature death.
In addition to being environmentally hazardous, energy in the US is expensive. One in three American families face energy insecurity, meaning that they struggle to pay their energy bills and/or face challenges keeping their homes at appropriate temperatures. Energy insecurity disproportionately impacts communities of color across the country. For example, black households encounter a median energy cost burden that is about 60% greater than white households.
A Cleaner, More Equitable Future
Energy is an issue of equity because the allocation of affordable and clean energy, along with the pollution caused by fossil fuels, varies significantly according to race and class. Renewable energy initiatives pose the potential to lessen energy burdens while also protecting the environment. Ironically, these approaches have remained widely inaccessible to the people who need them the most due to participation barriers such as income and homeownership requirements.
Community solar gardens (CSGs) can be designed to dismantle these participation barriers by providing clean and cheap energy to people regardless of their incomes or whether they rent or own. A CSG is an array of solar panels installed on the roof of a local building whose electricity is shared by more than one property. This system provides solar energy for groups that would typically be excluded from it, such as renters.
In addition to inclusivity, CSGs can confront energy insecurity by lowering utility bills. Solar technology has become increasingly more efficient and affordable over the past decade. Solar energy is one of the cheapest energy sources because of the minimal extraction costs (sunshine is free!) and the overall cost of solar has decreased by ~90% over the past decade. CSG subscribers can save money on energy costs while also participating in renewable energy initiatives.
The adoption of distributed community solar will make renewable energy more accessible and electricity more affordable, all while fighting climate change and promoting environmental justice. Solar energy is tied to environmental justice because it lowers pollution, which is the most abundant in communities of color, by displacing fossil fuel combustion. Another component of environmental justice is assuring that people of color, who are often excluded from the environmental industry, are represented in the fields. CSG developments can be intersectionally equitable by hiring local and minority workers and pursuing partners that do the same.
Fossil fuel energy extraction hurts people as well as the planet, and the most vulnerable groups experience the effects of global warming and pollution the most severely. Environmental injustice and climate change are vast, complex problems that demand diverse and innovative solutions. Community solar gardens are a triple threat, encompassing affordability, accessibility, and sustainability. These developments combat environmental degradation and social disparities simultaneously. Community solar gardens won’t solve everything, but they’re a notable step in the right direction towards resilient, sustainable cities.