By Joe Gibbons
Solar energy continues to revolutionize the way we power our lives. Formerly a novel approach to generating electricity, solar panels are quickly becoming common fixtures that dot the suburban landscape. But even though sunshine is ubiquitous and free, the benefits of solar have not yet accrued to low-income families, those living in rental units, or others living in disfranchised urban communities. Fortunately, policymakers and utilities across the country are starting to make sure that solar power is deployed beyond wealthy neighborhoods. One interesting new approach comes from Arizona, where the state’s utilities regulator, the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), launched a voluntary assistance program to expand solar to low-income and working class families.
These kinds of efforts are increasingly important for the poor because, as energy prices continue to rise, many are forced to dedicate more of their income to pay for this basic necessity. The result is a rapid rise in energy insecurity, which has devastating consequences for poor and working class families, forcing many to choose between paying the electric bill and putting food on the table. More than half of families that are energy insecure live in poverty, and about one third are extremely poor. Approximately half of all energy insecure households are African American. Over half of families that are energy insecure are renters; 41 percent are homeowners.
Solar energy can go a long way toward addressing some of these issues by providing energy insecure families with access to more affordable power, but only if low-income and working class families can access the equipment. Unfortunately for these families, solar equipment is still expensive. In order to mount solar panels, a family must own their home and have adequate roof space. But even then, they must also have $10,000-$40,000 dollars to purchase and install the equipment. Financing may be an option, but this typically requires a stellar credit history. Given these facts, policymakers must craft policies that can enable the poor to benefit from solar.
Arizona is taking a unique, fiscally conservative approach to low-income solar. The ACC’s new Voluntary Solar Contribution Program provides an opportunity for the public to directly support rooftop solar for low-income families through voluntary, tax-deductible contributions. The contributions will be used to support solar programs aimed at low-income families. Arizona’s utilities will take the voluntary contributions and use them to install solar systems on homes built by Habitat for Humanity..
Arizona’s approach identifies the problem of solar inaccessibility for low-income consumers and starts to address it through voluntary contributions from the broader energy customer base. Although the program is not a “silver bullet” solution, it begins to expand solar into low-income communities, and calls attention to the issue of energy insecurity and the need for inclusion and fairness in renewable energy.