By the end of 2022, 5.6 gigawatts of community solar had been installed in 41 states. A list of most of them can be seen here. Depending on how the count is done, that’s enough to provide electricity to 2.8 million to 4.2 million households. Nothing to sneeze at. The Solar Energy Industries Association forecasts another 6 gigawatts of community solar will come online in the next five years. That’s a lot, but those mildly encouraging numbers conceal a problem.
In the majority of cases, a community solar project requires applicants to have a minimum 700+ FICO credit score. Lenders won’t underwrite projects that don’t meet this requirement. Forty percent of Americans had a score less than 700 in 2021, according to FICO. No need to guess who usually gets left out of this direct means of equitably distributing solar electricity.
Engineer Utopia Hill, the CEO of Reactivate, a partnership between Invenergy and investment firm Lafayette Square in Illinois, is one of the people working to get more community solar into marginalized communities. As stated in the headline to Kari Lydersen’s lengthy article at Energy News Network, Hill has found that “bringing solar to low-income customers is a lot harder than you might think.” Since 2017, incentives for community solar are included under Illinois’ energy laws, including the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act and the Future Energy Jobs Act that created the state’s Solar for All program. But accessing these incentives and getting projects underway has been difficult.
For one thing, customers in marginalized communities are shy about the promises of such projects because they have in the past been the targets of scammers and deceptive predatory marketeers of electricity from alternative sources. Trust is essential to persuade people a community solar project is in their interest, and establishing that trust takes time.
Steph Speirs, the CEO of Solstice Power Technologies, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company founded by women of color, told Lydersen, “Community organizing is an underappreciated skill in the energy industry, but it is a skill that requires experience to do constructively and respectfully. When you work with under-resourced communities, trust is your most valuable currency. At Solstice we understand that we aren’t entitled to that trust. We have to earn it, and we can only move at the speed of trust.” She notes that Hill is working hard at that task.
An even bigger stumbling block to the community solar program created by Illinois’ 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act has seen the benefits going mostly to larger developers of fewer projects. They gobbled up state incentives so fast that many community solar projects were never built.
But the law was revamped in 2021, and last month Reactivate and Solstice, which is handling subscriptions, say three Solar for All projects designed for low- and moderate-income customers are now open for enrollment. When completed, they will save subscribers about $12 million over 20 years and generate electricity for about 1,200 households. Lydersen writes:
[Speirs noted that she] “was raised by a single, immigrant mom who worked minimum wage jobs and struggled to pay the bills through no fault of her own.” Like Hill, she said that more diverse leadership in the clean energy sector is crucial to make clean energy more accessible to customers.
“There are so many challenges when trying to dismantle the exclusionary aspects of the current energy industry,” Speirs said. “I really admire Utopia’s leadership and am excited to collaborate with her to build a world that views clean energy as a human right, not a privilege for the few.”
Although she had been involved in wind energy projects for a decade and a half by then, Hill calls the COVID-19 pandemic her “big awakening” that having a solar energy option is a way to protect public health and promote environmental justice. “I had a lot of friends who had various types of respiratory issues, but you don’t necessarily think about the correlation” with pollution, she noted. “During COVID, seeing people I cared about die because of those respiratory issues really struck a chord with me. Energy justice, and just transition, all started to come together.”
One aspect of that justice is getting people trained for clean energy jobs in environmental justice and low-income communities. If it’s really community solar, then people from the community ought to be involved at every stage. The Solar for All program offers extra incentives for solar constructed by women- and minority-owned firms and installers with diverse workforces. The trouble is, solar developers have found it difficult to connect with trainees. Hill said Reactivate is working to connect developers with solar job-training programs. “A lot of our time has been spent listening and building relationships and understanding from the various training providers who currently exist, even working on curriculum,” she said.
That seems like a problem that shouldn’t be too hard to figure out in the near term. But there are definitely hurdles to overcome. Some solar workers—installers, for instance—are paid less than someone of equal skills might earn in an equivalently skilled fossil fuel job and often are only temporary employees who must go from state to state to find work. But prospects for better, steadier green jobs are on the rise. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the energy transition will require 9.1% more electricians by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act has incentivized the training of more electricians with money for apprenticeship programs.
While solar installers are paid less than oil rig workers, the median salary in a green job is $76,530 a year. That is 31% more than the national median salary of $58,260, according PromoLeaf’s Green Jobs Report analysis. As Carolyn Fortuna points out:
[M]oving away from fossil fuels is sometimes viewed as a dangerous decision since it might cost the country jobs in fossil fuel industries; coal mining is showcased as an example. Yet the coal mining industry today employs around 37,000 people—less than 6% of the number of people employed as electricians. Existential fear on the part of the fossil fuel industry has resulted in scare tactics that make legacy workers question whether they’ll find a place in the new all electric workplace.
While it’s important to ensure fossil fuel workers get a fair shake as their jobs slowly slip away, there are millions in marginalized communities who should get an ample slice of the training and the vast number of new jobs being created to handle the green transition. Done right, the spread of community solar can be a key element of this, with major benefits for the environment, for the economy, and for equity. But experience tells us that “done right” will require serious ongoing scrutiny and tweaking.
Across the nation, there is no denying that some people have been left out of previous solar programs that on paper may have looked like and been intended to be perfectly neutral but have played out quite differently on the ground. But much of the lack of solar adoption in marginalized communities is a consequence of the lingering legacy of old policies, sometimes very old policies whose very not-neutral creators had profoundly ill intentions spurred by racism.
Happily, the Biden administration has set high goals for environmental justice. However, declarations and implementations are two very different things. Reaching those goals (or even getting on a trajectory to reach them) in the face of the relentlessly obstinate Republican Party of No will be no small feat. The next time a reconciliation budget is on the table, it ought to include funding for an enhanced, more aggressive, sped-up community solar expansion.
Why Rails to Trails Are (Sometimes) Problematic
RESOURCES & ACTION
U.S. home heating is fractured in surprising ways: Look up your neighborhood by John Muyskens, Shannon Osaka and Naema Ahmed at The Washington Post. There are four main ways that Americans heat their homes: electricity, natural gas, propane or fuel oil. Most U.S. homes, nearly 90%, get their warmth from either electricity in the form of old and inefficient electric resistance heaters or new, more efficient heat pumps, or from piped-in natural gas burned in a furnace. Other homes use propane—a fossil fuel created by natural gas processing or oil refining—or fuel oil, both are delivered by truck. The map of home heating below shows the regions that will have the easiest time making the transition are ones where many don’t support President Joe Biden’s energy and climate policies. If you hover on the map at the link, you can see how homes in your neighborhood are heated.
Help Build Support for America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act in the 118th Congress! Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Melanie Stansbury will soon reintroduce America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act in the 118th Congress. The bill proposes federal wilderness designation for landscapes like the Dirty Devil, Labyrinth Canyon, parts of Bears Ears, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments—all places renowned for natural beauty and cultural significance. This week, activists from across the United States have been meeting with their elected officials, urging them to cosponsor this important legislation. You can assist in this effort by asking your senator or representative to co-sponsor the bill.
The Indigenous Winter Pantry: Recipes for Today’s Kitchen. By Stephanie Woodard. The main ingredients in the foods Indigenous people put up for winter are caring, sharing, and a big dollop of joy. Communities that work together to preserve the bounty of prairie, desert, forest, and garden thrive during challenging times. At the link, the Pueblo of Zuni, the Ramah Chapter of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, the Puyallup Tribe in Washington State, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota share their recipes.
The Dishonest Accounting of Net-Zero Emissions. By Mark Schapiro at Capital & Main. “’Zero’ is an elegant word, the last word in a descending line down a scale from something to nothing. And so, among our nation’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, like ExxonMobil, it’s getting popular. ... But the press has too often given companies a free ride when it comes to their claims to be heading toward ‘net zero.’ Even the world’s most prominent gathering of financial elites at the World Economic Forum—the ones who meet each year in the snowy ski chalets of Davos, Switzerland—cautioned against greenwashing by companies maneuvering for position in a suddenly climate-awakened world, and placed “net zero” at the top of their list of possibly misleading claims. Several regulatory agencies in U.S. and abroad have begun to watch for greenwashers far more closely than ever before in the context of false advertising.”
Why the humble city bus is the key to improving US public transit. By Nicholas Dagen Bloom at The Conversation. “Public transit in the U.S. is in a sorry state—aging, underfunded and losing riders. Many proposed solutions focus on new technologies, like self-driving cars and flying taxis. But as a researcher in urban policy and planning, I see more near-term promise in a mode that’s been around for a century: the city bus. Today, buses in many parts of the U.S. are old and don’t run often enough or serve all the places where people need to go. But this doesn’t reflect the bus’s true capability. Instead, as I see it, it’s the result of cities, states and federal leaders failing to subsidize a quality public service. As I show in my new book, ‘The Great American Transit Disaster: A Century of Austerity, Auto-Centric Planning, and White Flight,’ few U.S. politicians have focused on bus riders’ experiences over the past half-century.”
Passing the Infrastructure Bill Was a Huge Win. But How’s the Implementation Going? By Daniel Strauss at The New Republic. “Across the country, signs have been showing up that credit Biden with infrastructure improvements. At the recent House Democratic retreat, mock-ups of such signs circulated among attendees. At the center of this process is former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the Biden administration’s infrastructure czar. Landrieu’s office is the central hub for coordinating infrastructure projects. He works with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Biden senior adviser John Podesta, whose portfolios have respective ties to Landrieu’s, on granting funding for projects across the country. ‘When the president called me, one of my jobs was to help figure out how to get the money to the ground and try to get the projects out of the ground,’ Landrieu explained. ‘So my team is basically doing three things—and everything falls into these three things: one, building a team. Two, getting the money out the door. And three, telling a story.’”
Man Tanks and Gas Babies Big Oil is a crime syndicate. By Brad Johnson at Hill Heat sub stack. “The climate crisis means we have to eliminate the billions of cars powered by fossil-fueled internal combustion engines. I understand the appeal to politicians of getting rid of macho gas-guzzlers by replacing them electric man-tanks. Imagine if we could solve global warming without threatening contemporary symbols of toxic masculinity! But electric man-tanks like the electric F-150 Lightning are wasteful behemoths. Enterprise reporting from Jessica Brice and Sheridan Prasso uncovers how the astounding amounts of aluminum required for Ford’s marquee electric truck—about 100 times that needed for an e-bike—is refined from bauxite from strip mines in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest by the ‘sustainable’ Norwegian concern Norsk Hydro."
The Path to a Green New Deal Must Involve a Series of Separate Bills. C.J. Polychroniou at Truthout interviews Kaniela Ing, National Director of the Green New Deal Network. “He sees the Inflation Reduction Act and Investment and Infrastructure Jobs Act as stepping stones toward a Green New Deal and advancing justice for frontline and Black, Indigenous, people of color communities. But the most immediate concern, he says, is ensuring that ‘the full benefits of the [acts] reach communities across the country and have a positive impact on the planet and its people.’ Ing was a founding member of the Green New Deal Network as the climate justice director for People’s Action, where he led campaigns to combat climate change. While at People’s Action, Ing co-created and led mass mobilizations around the People’s Bailout and THRIVE Agenda, of which remnants remain in the federal acts.”
The case for climate reparations in the United States. By Manann Donoghoe and Andre M. Perry at the Brookings Institution. “In environmental and climate change policy, there is a blind spot when it comes to racism. The impacts of climate change are worsening and becoming more frequent: increasingly dangerous storm surges and floods; temperature extremes that raise household heating and cooling costs; and increased exposure to air pollution that causes avoidable deaths, to name just a few. Many believe such impacts to be ‘colorblind,’ affecting all people equally. But they are not. Enveloped in the term ‘environmental racism,’ communities of color are overexposed to these climate-related harms despite bearing little responsibility for them. From the elevated risk of climate-related disasters that entrench poverty in formerly colonized nations to the disproportionate environmental health burdens in majority nonwhite U.S. neighborhoods, many of these communities are paying a higher price due to legacies of exploitation and devaluation. And because of these uneven distributions in impacts and responsibilities, there is a growing call for a more reparative approach to international climate change policy. The same discussions should also be happening domestically.”
"First thing in the morning you look after yourself, you brush your teeth and wash your face, don’t you? Well, the second thing you must do is to look after the planet."—Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, World War II French resistance pilot, poet laureate, and author of The Little Prince
HALF A DOZEN OTHERS THINGS TO READ (OR LISTEN TO)
Major US oil companies raked in $290 billion in profits last year. By Accountable.US. “26 oil and gas companies announced a total of $290 billion in income for 2022, with an average increase of 126% over 2021. Enough to pay off U.S. medical debt. BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron more than doubled their net income from the previous year, and smaller companies like Murphy Oil And Southwestern Energy saw increases of 1,410% and 7,496% respectively. While Big Oil anticipates a slower 2023, companies have already announced $160 billion in stock buybacks starting this year. That’s enough to give internet access to every American and still have over $80 billion to spare. A year ago this month, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California introduced a bill to tax excess oil company profits and pay American households a quarterly refund, a bill that was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the Ending Corporate Greed Act, a 95% windfall profits tax on major oil companies. Neither of those bills Last month, Whitehouse introduced S. 408, a revamped version of the quarterly dividend bill.”
One of Japan’s Most Revered Architects Says the World Should Build Less. By Aaron Clark at Bloomberg Green. “Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, whose projects explore connections between natural and man-made systems, said the world should limit new construction to reduce the climate impact of the built environment. There has been an inextricable link between new buildings and economic growth in the 20th century, but that relationship must change because the climate impact from unfettered development is so great, Kuma said in an interview. He emphasized the role of architects and designers is expanding and they must consider using wind, sunlight and the temperature of the soil in projects. ‘We can create life without more buildings,’ said Kuma, whose designs have been at the vanguard of a movement to incorporate wood that is now rapidly going mainstream. ‘I'm very much interested in the refurbishment of buildings, the renovation of buildings. Sometimes refurbished buildings add unexpected value.’”
Pain in the Butt: Study Finds Forever Chemicals in Toilet Paper. By Carly Wanna at Bloomberg Green. “So-called forever chemicals seem to be turning up everywhere. We wear them, clean our houses with them and, according to a new study, perhaps even wipe ourselves with them. The report, published this week in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, has found evidence of per- or polyfluorinated chemicals—also known as PFAS—in toilet paper. An academic team led by researchers at the University of Florida concluded that the bathroom staple might be a source of PFAS entering wastewater treatment systems. ‘PFAS are ubiquitous in so many consumer products,’ said Jake Thompson, the study’s lead author and a PhD student in environmental engineering at the University of Florida. ‘I don’t want the takeaway being that everyone has to stop using toilet paper. It’s more that it’s this issue that is pretty engrained into society, and we have to think how we can limit its uses across a wide range of products.’”
Cornell Study Finds Solar Panels Help Crops Grow & Crops Help Solar Panels Last Longer. By Steve Hanley at CleanTechnica.
”Researchers at Cornell University led by graduate student Henry Williams have identified a symbiotic relationship between solar panels and agriculture. Their findings were published February 15 in the journal Applied Energy in a paper titled ‘The potential for agrivoltaics to enhance solar farm cooling.’ In the study, the researchers developed a numerical model to investigate the micro-climate of a solar farm. That model measured the influence of evapo-transpiration, panel height, and ground albedo on the crops and the solar panels. The findings were used to compare an agrivoltaic system to a traditional solar panel system. The results indicate crops can provide up to a 10 degrees C (18 F) cooling benefit to the solar panels in an agrivoltaic system.”
Agricultural Emissions to Push World Past 1.5°C of Warming, New Study Warns. By Paige Bennett. “The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that about 75% of the expected warming attributed to food systems is associated with foods that are major sources of methane, including ruminant meat, dairy products, and rice. Without any adjustments, food systems alone, from production to consumption, will push warming past the limits agreed upon in the Paris agreement. The 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target was set to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Catherine Ivanovich, lead author of the study and a climate scientist at Columbia University, told The Associated Press. ‘I think the biggest takeaway that I would want (policymakers) to have is the fact that methane emissions are really dominating the future warming associated with the food sector.’”
One year in, the toxic legacy of war in Ukraine comes into view. By Blanca Begert at Grist. “Tens of thousands of lives have been lost, millions of people have been displaced, and while the Ukrainian military surprised the world by holding its own and reclaiming half the land captured by Russia this year, the fighting has no clear end in sight. Largely ignored has been the war’s massive environmental impact on Ukraine itself. Ecoaction, a Ukrainian nonprofit, has been tracking the environmental damage since the was been, drawing information from media reports and local government announcements and publishing updated findings online every two weeks. Greenpeace joined the effort to provide satellite verification and mapping. So far the team has documented 863 instances of degradation, including widespread forest fires, destroyed terrestrial and marine ecosystems, burst pipelines filling wetlands with oil, sunken ships in the Black Sea, chemical plant waste spilling into rivers, and radioactive releases from nuclear plants. Much of the liberated territory of Ukraine is full of explosive mines, which poses a challenge for the mappers and chroniclers. Plus, ‘A huge territory is still occupied so we don’t even know what is happening there,’ said Yevheniia Zasiadko, the head of Ecoaction’s climate and transport departments.”
Industry Knew—and Hid—Dangers of Gas Stoves Over 50 Years Ago • Environmental Groups Sue to Stop Federal Oil and Gas Auction in Gulf of Mexico • Cattle country fends off climate villain label • Climate fiction that envisions the next 180 years of equitable climate progress • The hazards of gas stoves were flagged by the industry—and hidden—50 years ago • Construction starts on Nevada’s Thacker Pass lithium mine • Release of captive-bred native fish negatively impacts ecosystems, study finds • Smaller, safer, cheaper? Modular nuclear plants could reshape coal country • The Indigenous Winter Pantry: Recipes for Today’s Kitchen • Schools Struggle With Lead in Water While Awaiting Federal Relief
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