How to Expand Access to Clean Energy Financing

Jacob Sandry

Imagining futures is a fundamental activity of the human psyche. Apocalyptic blockbusters flood movie theaters every summer, technologists imagine how silicon will next transform our lives (I’m still waiting for my flying car), and political analysts predict how elections might reshape our country. One future that we are realizing nearly as quickly as we imagine it is clean energy as a solution to climate change. Solar energy has tripled in capacity in the last eight years, rapidly outpacing fossil fuels. But as we fight climate change, we must ultimately remember those who are disproportionately harmed by environmental crises. In a recent Solutions Journal article, Gregory Rosenthal and Marjeela Basij-Rasikh remind us that “the fight of workers, women, farmers, indigenous peoples, and so many others—not just for survival, but for vibrant and resilient communities—represents the many manifestations of environmentalism across the world.” As we create the future we imagine, we must challenge ourselves not only to make a clean energy future, but to make an equal energy future as well.

Solar “Revolution”?

New financing models have driven an explosion in the growth of solar projects across the United States. However, in order to qualify for these financing models, customers must fit a unique profile: home or building owners that have unshaded rooftops and excellent credit. If you’re lucky enough to fit this profile, hosting a solar installation can have wonderful benefits: lower cost, fixed energy prices; increased home value; renewable energy credits; and, most importantly, bragging rights.

While the coverage of the solar industry in the past few years paints a glowing white knight defending the earth from the dark scourge of the fossil fuel industry, what is often unmentioned is to whom the spoils of this victory go (of which I am guilty). Solar’s growth has been spectacularly valuable for homeowners who are seeing cost savings on their energy bills, big businesses like Wal-Mart and Ikea that have installed hundreds of MW of solar power to cut energy prices in their big-box stores, and solar companies that have developed profitable and scalable business models. But often left out of the narrative are those people who could benefit the most from cleaner, cheaper energy.

Nearly 40% of U.S. households earn less than $40,000 per year, but these households have enjoyed less than 5% of solar installations. Low-income families have trouble securing financing for solar installations because they tend to have smaller savings than those at other income levels, less income to borrow against, and lower credit scores. But low-income households are actually the ones that could benefit the most from the financial savings that solar provides. On average, the electric bills of low-income households account for 6% of family expenses while those of wealthier households account for 2%. It’s like reserving cheap, healthy food for only the wealthy (oh wait…).

The story of solar job creation has been well touted, but how it could also be a tool of poverty alleviation and economic development for disadvantaged communities must become part of the discussion. A George Washington University study estimates that taking low-income households solar could increase annual budgets by up to $23 billion and create over 100,000 jobs.

What Is to Be Done?

In a recent op-ed, Mark Ruffalo, the embodiment of green energy and co-chair of the 100% campaign, notes “For a long time, everybody thought of solar panels as something only rich people could afford. But when you think about it, the fuel—sunlight—is free.” A number of leaders are working alongside Ruffalo to make the benefits of this free, clean fuel available to everyone.

It’s difficult to consider President Obama a climate hero after Shell received approval for dangerous oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea, but an initiative announced in July sets up a number of programs for improving clean energy access. The administration pledged to install 300MW of solar power on federally subsidized housing by 2020 alongside the $520 million in pledges by states, localities, and private sector players. Earlier, Obama announced a program that would train 75,000 additional workers for jobs in clean energy, an industry with job growth already 10 times that of the rest of the economy, with a new AmeriCorps program for installing solar in low-income communities.

The initiative also expands community solar programs. Community solar gardens of one gigawatt have been proposed in Minnesota under the state’s exciting new program (disclaimer: I’m a native Minnesotan, happy to tout my state’s clean energy leadership). Community solar gardens enable renters and low-income families to purchase cheap solar energy from off-site installations, expanding solar access. Only a few states have active community solar programs, but if spread to all states, these programs could double the rate of solar growth and open clean energy to 100 percent of Americans.

Many banks or financiers won’t lend to low-income solar customers because of their low credit scores or lack of savings. New York and Connecticut have both founded Green Banks that offer credit enhancements that can be structured to lower default risks and absorb potential losses for clean energy investments. Credit enhancement and support mechanisms need to open financing options to all families. Many of these financing mechanisms were proposed in Bernie Sanders’s “Low-Income Solar Act” that was introduced in July.

A number of powerful grassroots initiatives have emerged to widen access to solar energy. Van Jones, Obama’s former Green Jobs advisor, heads a group called Green for All that leads campaigns to fight against environmental injustice and advocates for green jobs. Jones recently argued that “Workers in green industries such as solar energy tend to receive higher wages than a number of average-wage jobs, and many of the jobs in the solar industry require less formal education—a good recipe for escaping poverty. These are exactly the kinds of jobs we need.”

Working on climate change and clean energy involves constantly imagining a cleaner, more sustainable future. We are driven by the narrative, the narrative of existential necessity, of low-carbon energy production overtaking the fossil fuel industry to ultimately help people. Our generation has the rare opportunity to create this future that we imagine, but with this opportunity comes the responsibility to make it a better future for all people.

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