Bringing solar energy to low-income households – The Boston Globe

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A recent report revealed that 80 percent of existing energy infrastructure in Massachusetts is located in or within 1 mile of low-income communities, particularly communities of color. It isn’t surprising — the same is true of many polluting land uses such as hazardous waste facilities, incinerators, and highways. This issue has come to a head in East Boston with a Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit on Monday arguing that the approval for an Eversource electricity substation should be overturned. This is why the report by several advocacy groups recommends changes to the electricity infrastructure siting process so these environmental justice communities are not forced to bear the burden of providing energy. It is just as important that these communities get their fair share of the renewable energy solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

More than4 million rooftop solar systems have been installed in the United States, with Massachusetts being one of the top five states. While this is a laudable achievement, policy to promote rooftop solar has mainly subsidized the wealthy who own their homes and can make the upfront investment. Installing solar on the rooftops of single-family homes is straightforward — get the subsidies, install the panels, and reap the benefits of generating your own electricity and selling the excess back to the utility.

Community solar has the potential to bring solar to environmental justice communities. It’s a way for customers who rent or live in multifamily buildings not amenable to solar arrays, or who cannot afford the upfront costs to “subscribe” to the energy from a solar installation, to offset the power they use on a pay-as-you-go basis with no upfront costs. Community solar allows multiple parties to share the output (and benefits) of a large solar project.

But low- and moderate-income households are only a small percentage of those benefiting from community solar. In most projects, institutional, commercial, and residential customers who can afford it dominate.

A couple of projects in Boston are seeking to change that.

The Boston Community Solar Cooperative was organized just after the Inflation Reduction Act passed in late 2022 to take advantage of the tax-subsidy provisions of the new law. It offers members the opportunity to earn or purchase an ownership share in the solar co-op. The co-op earns revenue from the sale of electricity at a rate lower than the local utility charges and shares it profits with members who are shareholders. The cooperative is currently developing a rooftop solar array at the site of the Dorchester Food Co-op and hopes to replicate the approach in other Boston neighborhoods.

Another initiative is Solar Helping Ignite Neighborhood Economies, an initiative of Rare, an international conservation organization. The initiative is funded by the US Department of Energy’s Community Power Accelerator Prize and a Massachusetts Clean Energy Center Equity Workforce Training Implementation grant. SHINE seeks to increase solar generation and electric vehicles in low-income communities, expand community solar to reduce utility bills, and recruit, train, and support residents of these communities for jobs in the solar industry. Action for Boston Community Development, known for its weatherization work in Boston communities, is delivering a job training for solar installation as part of SHINE, ensuring that residents of low-income communities can take advantage of green economy jobs.

To support more community solar projects serving environmental justice communities and realize the Commonwealth’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 85 percent by 2050, the Legislature needs to pass bill H.4503, which establishes a statewide target of installing 10 gigawatts of solar by 2030.

The equity aspect of the legislation is that it expands access to solar, including community solar, to households with incomes at or below 80 percent of the area median income or 200 percent of the federal poverty level. It also makes it easier to verify income, and it removes a key barrier to signing up for community solar by making it illegal for solar developers to perform screening credit checks on potential participants — thus removing another barrier to solar for lower-income residents.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced $7 billion Solar for All program will deliver $156 million to Massachusetts to fund solar projects, including community solar, in low-income and disadvantaged communities. Currently almost all the community solar projects in Massachusetts are located in rural areas and changes in state solar policy need to be made in order to incentivize community solar in urban areas. Adoption of Governor Maura Healey’s Commission on Energy Infrastructure Siting and Permitting recommendations and updates to the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program are critical to unleashing community solar systems that service all communities in Massachusetts.

To list these needed policy changes that connect environmental justice to community solar is to appreciate there is no single silver bullet that will achieve equity. That will require a change in our mentality, which in turn leads us to a suite of solutions.

Joan Fitzgerald is a professor at Northeastern University School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs. Gregory King is managing director of TSK Energy Solutions.

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