The Rising Dawn: How Equitable Solar Policy Can Forward Economic and Climate Justice Part Two

Policy Models and Insights From Environmental Justice Leaders Part Two

"Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward." - Nelson Mandela

The Just Solutions Collective and the People’s Solar Energy Fund presents, “The Rising Dawn: How equitable solar policy can forward economic and climate justice,” a three-part blog series of policy models and insights from environmental justice leaders on Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) frontline community-led solar policy. For part one and three of the series, please visit our website here.

Examples of Frontline Community-Led Solar Policy Advocacy from Around the Country

There is a growing demand for and commitment to community solar that addresses equity issues. As such, there is a growing array of policies and programs catering specifically to expanding solar access to communities across the country. There are a diversity of approaches that include programs to increase benefits to low and moderate-income communities. Some stand out more than others in offering effective solutions, but all the groups interviewed stressed that there is still a long way to go in making solar policy truly responsive to community demands and providing funding that is accessible and at the level needed to truly scale these efforts to meet the need. However, by looking closer at specific models that have had some successes, we can get a sense of what effective, community-oriented solar policy, that prioritizes equity should look like and derive insights on what we could improve and scale. 

1. Policies that increase the accessibility of solar energy to low-income communities

The question of who can access and benefit from solar is a huge justices issue. The Comprehensive Building Blocks for a Regenerative and Just 100% Policy report by the Just Solutions Collective address a fundamental economic justice issue in the energy system. That is, frontline and low-income communities have paid into renewable energy programs, incentives, and policies as taxpayers and ratepayers (with an energy burden that generally represents a much higher percentage of their income), while the benefits generally go to higher-income individuals who can already afford to have access (1). Several state policies are starting to redress this imbalance, providing an insight into what more equitable solar policy can look like as well as showing what the challenge of scaling this up in a fair manner would require.

Solar on Multifamily Affordable Homes, California

Launched in 2019, the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program provides financial incentives for solar installations on multifamily affordable housing. The policy (AB 693)  responded to the concern that renters in low-income communities, particularly BIPOC communities, were unable to participate in or benefit from the solar industry. The scale of this exclusion is particularly great in California given that 45% of the state, almost 17 million people, are renters (2). The proportion of renters is even higher in cities like L.A., particularly in communities that are low income and BIPOC, effectively shutting the majority of these communities out of the solar market. 

Amee Raval from the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) shared, “The SOMAH program delivers considerable financial benefits to residents in affordable housing in the form of credits on energy bills and an associated workplace development program.” This program was brought into existence largely due to the advocacy of environmental justice groups. “The significant involvement of community-based organizations in rolling out the program has favored targeted siting of projects in frontline communities.” In addition, a community advisory council provides input into the program to ensure the maximization of benefits to communities. 

Challenges: 

  • Highly technical application processes can often be a barrier for groups with less capacity or experience. 
  • The current scale of the program is only reaching a fraction of the low income renters that make up part of the 17 million renters in the state. The amount of investment needed is significant so that it’s not just homeowners that benefit. 
  • There are limitations to current policies in delivering maximum benefits to low income communities. APEN has pushed for a feed-in tariff model that pays people beyond their bill savings to allow wealth-building opportunities. 

2. Policy that targets direct benefits to BIPOC-Frontline communities 

Solar policy can go beyond ensuring basic accessibility or simply adjusting for the exclusionary practices of utilities. This means centering BIPOC-Frontline communities at the center of how a policy is developed and ensuring that benefits, both direct and indirect, are targeted at those communities as a major feature of the policy.

Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, New York

Passed in 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) states that New York state must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 85%, and be completely carbon-neutral, by 2050. Summer Sandoval from UPROSE, a community-based organization notes, In addition to the clean energy development and generation goals, at the very least 35% of investment has to go towards disadvantaged communities with a goal of 40%. A major pillar of the policy is understanding that simple emission reduction doesn’t guarantee benefits to communities.” The groundbreaking nature of the CLCPA was led by a group of close to 200 community and other advocacy groups under the NY Renews coalition, of which UPROSE is on the steering committee, worked collaboratively to push for climate policy that served frontline communities. 

The implementation of the CLCPA is overseen by the New York State Climate Action Council (Council) which is advised by a Climate Justice Working Group. The complementary Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA) finances some of the goals of the CLCPA by raising $15 billion per year from corporate polluters. This money will be used to create good, green jobs, invest in frontline communities, and build a renewable economy, including solar arrays (3). New York’s specific climate targets now include 100% zero-emission electricity by 2040, having 70% renewable energy by 2030 and 6,000 MW of solar by 2025 (4).

Challenges: 

  • Ensuring that good policies are implemented properly and with full frontline community involvement. UPROSE notes the need for transparency and accountability, “Frontline groups have been approached by large, white-led groups that get funding from the fact they’ve got EJ engagement and they get the funding and community groups don’t see any of it.”
  • There are a number of challenges within community-led solar projects. UPROSE notes particular difficulties in negotiating and securing the site lease for the Brooklyn solar project they led in.
  • The type of financing and kinds of financing institutions available to frontline communities is also a major issue. Funding is needed to support implementation. Current models are tailored to investors with access to resources and capital. More equitable financing is needed, this will include public bank structures. 
  • The current working model of how utilities operate also emerges as a stumbling block. Based on the community-owned solar project that UPROSE is leading in Brooklyn, they note that “utilities need to be able to work with community groups, increase engagement, and streamline an affordable process.” 

3. Reforming the policies and ownership of utilities

On the spectrum of reaching a fairer relationship between BIPOC-Frontline communities and utilities, there are a number of different approaches to leveling the playing field that advocacy groups and local communities have pushed for.

Community Solar Garden Law, Minnesota

Minnesota is seen as a leader in community solar in the US largely due to its enabling policy. The Community Solar Garden Law was passed in September 2013 mandating the largest utility in the state, Xcel Energy, to develop and administer a community solar program, the Solar Rewards Community. It was part of a broader suite of policy changes that required investor-owned utilities to meet the target of sourcing at least 1.5% of energy for retail sales from solar by 2020 and 10% by 2030. The legislation makes it easier for communities that are unable to access solar on their own sites. The law requires a minimum of five subscribers per solar garden and limits any one single subscriber to no more than 40% of the energy produced to ensure the involvement of small customers. 

Reflecting on the policy, Timothy DenHerder Thomas from Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF) noted that “Minnesota’s is particularly powerful because it gives clear and universal right to develop and to fair compensation. Importantly, there is no lottery for which projects get accepted, as such limits on capacity tend to disadvantage grassroots groups.” The Solar for All program in Illinois is an example of a lottery with those kinds of problems. 

By subscribing to community solar projects, individual subscribers receive an on-bill credit. This allows private solar developers to own projects and sell subscriptions, with the program targeting residential and small business customers and bills kept at the same rate or lower, depending on how the projects are structured. The state gives clear and universal rights to development and compensation. Projects benefiting from the program started becoming fully operational as of the beginning of 2017 and by November 2020, the program was generating 757 megawatts of operational capacity (5).

Challenges: 

  • The initial implementation of the program was hampered by its popularity and slowed down due to the high volume of applications. The process of entering into interconnection agreements was fraught, requiring the government to intervene and create an independent panel of engineers to resolve disputes. 
  • Given investors’ unfamiliarity with the program, securing financing was also difficult for early projects (6). 
  • The Minnesota law is a good example of policy that happens to enable the work around equity but is not explicitly built to do so. CEF shares,“The Illinois Solar for All program has a specific low-income solar carve out and this is something that could complement the Minnesota policy”.

4. Other progressive models of solar deployment

RYSE climate resilience center with solar and storage, California 

APEN has collaborated with Rising Youth for Sustainable Equity (RYSE) on a resilience center that offers healing, wellbeing services, arts/cultural programs, and workforce development services. RYSE is growing its campus and renovating and expanding its building. APEN helped fundraise and carry out project development to put solar on the building as part of an initiative to turn the facility into a multi-purpose, community-led resilience hub. In addition to meeting community and youth needs, the space is being equipped to serve as a refuge during times of crisis and disaster. The approach includes a youth governance model that allows them to identify what they need and what programming and services should be prioritized, as an innovative model of what youth leadership could look like. 

There were a number of policies that made this initiative possible. The RYSE project applied to the Storage and Self Generation Incentive Program for battery storage. For the solar component, their Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program has a feed-in tariff facility that can help with the solar financing piece. 

Please visit part three of The Rising Dawn blog series that will highlight the reasons for scaling up frontline community-led solar policy and include components of successful solar policy. For part one and three of the series, please visit our website here

Contributing BIPOC-Frontline Authors: 

Shakoor Aljuwani, NYC Community Energy Co-op and Co-op Power

Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, Cooperative Energy Futures 

Chandra Farley, Partnership for Southern Equity

Jacqui Patterson and Denise Abdul Rahman, NAACP

Amee Raval, Asian Pacific Environmental Network 

Bob Blake, Native Sun
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1. Just Solutions Collective (2020). Comprehensive Building Blocks for a Regenerative and Just 100% Policy

2. Snapshot of Tenants in California 2019, Tenants Together

3. The Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA), NY Renews

4. Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, NY State

5. Why Minnesota’s Community Solar Program is the Best. Institute for Local Self-Reliance. July 6, 2021

6. How Minnesota is Supporting Community Based Renewables. States & Regional Policy Innovation Programs

Photo Credit: University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS)