Energy, Climate Change Are Civil Rights Issues

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Commentary Was Originally Published August 25, 2017 in The Arizona Republic Under the Headline "My Turn: Put solar power in the poor's hands. It'll pay off for all." 

Arizona is the sunniest state in the nation.

Yet only about 5 percent of the state’s electricity is generated from solar energy. And Arizona added fossil-fuel pollutants faster than any other statebetween 1990 and 2007, worsening air quality, contributing to climate change and increasing the frequency and severity of forest fires, drought, heat waves and other extreme weather events.

Under the influence of powerful utility companies that have long enjoyed a monopoly on electricity sales, state regulators have put policies in place that maintain our reliance on coal, natural gas and nuclear energy, and make renewable energy ownership increasingly inaccessible.

Communities of color and lower income communities pay the biggest price for dirty energy, in both exposure to pollution and also in percentage of income spent on electricity.

Phoenix is among the most heavily polluted cities in the nation, especially where I live in south Phoenix. My ZIP code is among the dirtiest the nation, and home to 40 percent of the city’s hazardous emissions.

Shifting to renewable energy will help improve the health and well-being of our communities while also creating economic opportunities.

But those of us who would benefit the most from innovations like rooftop solar are currently accessing these technologies the least. Low and moderate-income families make up 40 percent of the U.S. population but only 5 percentof rooftop solar owners.

While we will all benefit indirectly from expanded renewable energy use in Arizona, we need to remove barriers and create pathways for more households to produce their own electricity through rooftop solar or subscribe to neighborhood community solar projects.

What will it take to create the renewable energy future for Arizona we want and urgently need? The recently released Arizona edition of the NAACP Report “Just Energy Policies: Reducing Pollution and Creating Jobs” points the way forward.

For example, Arizona can implement statewide policies that promote distributed energy generation and fairly compensate individuals who generate a portion of their own electricity through rooftop or community solar.

One way to do so is with “net metering,” which allows households to reduce electricity bills by generating a portion of their electricity through rooftop solar panels that are connected to the grid.

When the panels generate more energy than the customer needs, excess solar power is sent back to the grid and households receive a credit on their utility bill for excess electricity produced by their system. Strong, retail-rate net metering policies offset costs for solar power owners and make going solar an affordable option for more people.

While net metering is an important policy for making rooftop solar cost effective, we also need solar policies that enable participation for those who face economic and physical barriers to installing solar on their own roofs.

Shared solar typically operates in one of two ways. Through an ownership model, participants own some portion or a share of an offsite solar project and benefit from the power produced through their share of the project.

Virtual net metering allows owners to receive the net metering credits associated with a remote system with which they do not share a meter.

A subscription model allows participants to subscribe to and pay a lower price for electricity sources from a local community solar project.

Both of these shared solar models make solar energy more accessible for lower income customers, who might otherwise be cut out of the solar market because they are renters, don’t qualify for loans and financing options, or can’t afford the upfront costs to install solar.

Opponents of solar often claim that these energy sources will only benefit wealthy households. In reality, distributed energy generation spreads the economic benefits across communities rather than keeping them concentrated among a handful of electricity monopolies.

Despite common talking points by utilities, independent studies demonstrate that net metering has net benefits for all ratepayers when structured correctly, as summarized in a recent Brookings Institution Report. And while bad policies can keep the benefits of renewable energy in the hands of the affluent few, regulators also have the power to create a more inclusive solar market that empowers broad participation on an individual and community level.

With double-digit unemployment in too many of our communities, we also need to pave pathways for equitable access to economic opportunities in the new energy economy.

Solar is among the 10 fastest-growing industries in the country, with one out of every 50 new jobs created by the solar industry. Likewise, wind power technicians enjoy the fastest job growth in the United States.

Increasing renewable energy generation in our state will diversify our economy and create new jobs. Still, we need state policy mandates that require contractors with publicly funded projects to recruit a specified proportion of local residents as workers on the project, with special attention to disadvantaged groups. In this way, we can ensure that economic gains are distributed equitably and benefits remain within the community.

Arizona has some of the greatest renewable energy generating potential in the country, but our outdated energy practices are keeping us in the fossil-fueled past.

At the end of 2016, the 2,982 megawatts of installed solar in Arizona was just a fraction of the 18,296 megawatts installed in California. We’re ranked seventh in the country for solar jobs, with 7,310 in 2016 compared to more than 100,000 in California.

Arizona needs policies and programs that incentivize renewable energy use and make these resources more accessible. But until we pass campaign finance reform and get dirty, fossil-fueled money out of our political systems, it will continue to be incredibly challenging to pass the policy changes we desperately need.

Arizona needs energy policies that invest in the people and our future, not in the profit margins of a handful of special interests. We call on state policymakers to facilitate a rapid transition to clean, renewable energy and to implement equitable policies that are inclusive to those communities who stand to benefit the most.