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Solar Power for All? Philanthropy Can Make it Happen

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 Post Was Originally Published February 14, 2017 On Inside Philanthropy 

New forms of solar and battery-powered energy could soon be accessible to all—with some strategic assistance from the philanthropic sector.

Recent years have brought revolutionary changes in clean, renewable solar energy markets. The cost of solar panels has plummeted. And there have been breakthroughs in supporting technology: Sophisticated battery backup systems store excess power for when the sun doesn’t shine, reducing utility bills in multiple ways. These “solar + storage” systems are reaching a robust, market-acceleration phase as costs decline and technology becomes cheaper and more efficient.

Unfortunately, solar + storage has yet to penetrate the markets where it’s needed most: low-income communities in rural and urban areas. Clean energy companies are mainly marketing their innovations to commercial customers seeking to improve their bottom lines. Low-income communities are still awaiting their turn.

That’s a huge missed opportunity. Solar + storage systems in affordable housing could slash utility bills for low-income tenants and homeowners, helping to keep families from sliding further into poverty. Installed in food banks, fire stations and emergency shelters, those systems could build community resilience by maintaining critical services when grid power is disrupted. (And we can expect more power disruptions, as a warming planet brings more extreme weather.) Finally, by reducing reliance on fossil fuels, solar and battery power can slow the advance of climate change.

Why has the market failed to deliver clean energy to those most in need, and what can foundations do about it? A new report offers some timely answers.

The report, "A Resilient Power Capital Scan: How Foundations Could Use Grants and Investments to Advance Solar and Storage in Low-Income Communities," is the first empirical analysis of the solar + storage market. It was informed by interviews with over 30 industry leaders, advocates, foundation officials, and state and local policymakers. Commissioned by the Kresge Foundation, the Surdna Foundation and the JPB Foundation, the report was authored by the Clean Energy Group (CEG), a nonprofit working to bring about clean energy equity.

The report suggests a rigorous, comprehensive approach to bring solar + storage power to low-income communities—one that understands and harnesses the free market while acknowledging the market’s limitations.

The report found a series of structural market barriers, including gaps in technical capacity, data, finance and regulatory policy. Importantly, the authors identified more than 50 interventions—ranging from grants to program-related investments and endowment investments—that could surmount those barriers. 

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