We are in the midst of an energy revolution. Massachusetts, the rest of America, and the rest of the world are building out a clean energy infrastructure. This infrastructure will be made of community solar projects, wind turbines and other renewable sources of power.
We have a challenge with how we’re doing it in the United States. In certain places the poor are missing out, and the rich, as the adage goes, are getting richer. This isn’t what we had in mind when we say we want to democratize energy. It’s gotten to the point where certain groups are using this economic divide to spearhead attacks on solar power. Sadly, this angle might even be working in some places. Despite it’s importance, clean energy is still subject to the ever present global games of politics and economics.
What is the Problem?
In certain markets, namely those without thoughtfully structured development plans, we are finding the following:
The solar boom has been slow to extend to lower income neighborhoods. The 49.1 million households that earn less than $40,000 of income per year make up 40 percent of all US households but only account for less than five percent of solar installations. Source
This leads us directly toward the Federal programs, designed to drive solar power via a focus on tax credits. Who gains the most from tax credits? Take a guess:
Is this the long-term plan? Of course not.
We’re better than this, and we know so, but we had to start somewhere. We should thank those early adopters…those that invested in new, clean technology back when it was beyond the reach of anyone else. If not for that initial demand, spurred on by both the investment class and by public spending, we could never have dropped the price generating electricity with solar modules by such an astronomical amount.
What does the Evidence say?
Now that we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, how are we going to change? Luckily, many people have been thinking about this for a long time. Let’s first clear the air and recognize that solar power in general has helped grid pricing. This is according to the International Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency:
The significant drop in the price of solar and wind generation costs, especially for solar PV installations, helped prevent cost inflation in electricity generation over the past five years. Source
Secondly, let’s trash all those statements coming from utilities like this:
We need to set the stage for continued growth in solar in what we believe will be a sustainable way which is to not have solar customers that are being subsidised by the rest of our customers and producing unsustainable rates for those customers. Source
This propaganda needs to be quickly responded to with actual research, not talking heads trying to defend their stock options. Research like this:
Acadia Center assessed the grid and societal value of six marginal solar PV systems to better understand the overall value that solar PV provides to the grid (of Massachusetts). By evaluating an array of configurations, this analysis determines that the value of solar to the grid – and ratepayers connected to the grid – ranges from 22-28 cents/kWh, with additional societal values of 6.7 cents/kWh. Source
This means that those who install solar power are giving greater than they are taking. An analysis of solar power commissioned by the Public Service Commission in Mississippi, “Net Metering: Costs, Benefits and Policy Considerations” came up with a nice clean list of the benefits:
The evidence is clear that solar power brings everyone connected to the grid, rich and poor, great benefits. Now that we are confident that the general addition of solar power to the grid helps everyone, let’s focus on the details of how we can help specifically those less financially fortunate. Those who don’t own a home, and anyone else that wants to participate in the solar revolution, but just can’t make it happen…
What are we doing to fix this?
The first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that it exists. The second step is wanting to fix it. We want to fix this problem, we want to fix it all the way from the top to the bottom, evidence recently put forth by the White House proves this to one extreme:
- Launching a National Community Solar Partnership to unlock access to solar for the nearly 50 percent of households and business that are renters or do not have adequate roof space to install solar systems, including issuing a guide to Support States In Developing Community Solar Programs;
- Setting a goal to install 300 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy in federally subsidized housing and providing technical assistance to make it easier to install solar, including clarifying how to use Federal funding;
- Housing authorities, rural electric co-ops, power companies, and organizations in more than 20 states across the country are committing to put in place more than 260 solar energy projects, including projects to help low- and moderate- income communities save on their energy bills and further community solar; and
- More than $520 million in independent commitments from philanthropic and impact investors, states, and cities to advance community solar and scale up solar and energy efficiency for low- and moderate- income households. Source
Evidence on the state level shows us wanting to fix this in the middle latitudes. California is taxing companies that pollute and using that money to put solar power on the homes of the poor. And all the way at the grassroot level we are seeing The People help The People. Some go as far as to say that solar power is a key to ending global poverty, and, if cellphones as evidence of distributed banking and data are any evidence, distributed solar might be that key.
How exactly did Massachusetts figure out how to attack this problem?
Well, guess what? Massachusetts – the Bay State, the Old Colonial State, the Codfish State – is one of the leading places in this fine country of ours that is pushing down those barriers.
How does it work?
First, the State of Massachusetts designed a program that allows for many people to buy energy from large, centralized and, most importantly, well-priced solar power farms that are located in places that make sense. The average 8kW system, which fits on a regular house and brings your bill to $0/month, might cost $4/W. The average 1000kW+ community solar project might cost $2/W.
Second is virtual net metering. This program allows energy to be produced in large amounts at these central locations and then be applied to many smaller electricity bills spread all around the region at all times of the day.
Third, the Massachusetts SRECII Carve Out gives solar developers a fair financial playing field with the fossil fuel companies. Remember that Exxon knew about climate change in 1981. Realize that fossil fuels receive $5.3 trillion in tax breaks, subsidies and ignored externalities (like health care costs and climate change damage) every single year. An SREC is an amount of clean energy that the power companies are legally obligated to buy, and Massachusetts has told power companies that if they want your money and legal monopolies, they must buy this clean energy.
These three factors come together and give us the secret recipe to help people who don’t have the funds to buy solar modules on their own. It let’s anyone change their electricity provider to a community solar power plant, with no contracts, and get electricity at a better price than the major power companies can offer. If you live in an apartment, you can get solar power. If you are trying to get a better deal on your electricity, consider a community solar project. If you own a small home that isn’t proper for solar power, a community solar
By bringing people together to own something as one, as a community, we continue to build on our very special Massachusetts understanding of politics and society. This is our home. These are our lives, and we need to keep hold of them. With community solar we even offer a chance for small businesses, who often don’t own their structures, to participate. We know that when money stays local – local contractors, local electricians, local land tax revenues – then the local economies are a little bit stronger.
Let’s be blunt. The power utilities are against anything that will limit their profits. Their legal obligation is to protect stock holders. Things like the current Baker Bill, which want to limit Net Metering, are politics whose goal is to create fear. The evidence is clear. Smarter policy leads to broader uptake:
Massachusetts provides a good example of how the adoption of rooftop solar across income levels can follow household distribution almost perfectly, with residential installations spread fairly evenly over the population. Source
The path we here in Massachusetts have set out on will be followed by many across the country. If we are not vigilant, those who are asking “Will Massachusetts’ Net Metering Caps Spoil the Community Solar Party?” will get a terrible answer. Your choice.