What’s missing in the California solar debate — High Country News – Know the West

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Energy justice advocates point to a gaping hole in renewable energy access: community solar.

The community solar project at El Dorado Park near Fresno, California had all the trappings of a large renewable energy project. It was designed with community input from the start. Almost all residents of El Dorado are low-income renters living in apartment buildings or multi-family housing, and they wanted to have green space and community solar power. They found two vacant lots in their neighborhood that the owners were willing to sell for a reasonable price, and together with the El Dorado Community Development Corporation, they created a plan to build community gardens with solar canopies that would generate about 66 kilowatts of electricity. – enough to power about two dozen households. They would form a cooperative so they could run the project themselves and receive dividends as owners for the energy they would sell back to the utilities. In 2020, Shake Energy Collaborative, a women-owned renewable energy developer that partners with low-income communities, came on board and applied to Pacific Gas and Electric as part of one of its programs for community solar energy, the Community Solar Green Tariff program.

A community workshop hosted by Shake Energy in the El Dorado Park neighborhood near Fresno, California in 2020. During the workshop, community members were able to co-design the proposed community solar project.

Courtesy Energy Shake

“Everyone was excited about the project because it meant a garden, cheaper (energy) rates, and community ownership of this solar, which would continue to be a valuable asset to the neighborhood,” Ali said. Andrews, CEO of Shake Energy. Recount High Country News.

It was rejected. Twice – the second time for undisclosed reasons. But Andrews isn’t so surprised: While community solar has boomed in other states, it’s lagging far behind in the Golden State. In 2019, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council gave California C and D grades for the top two ways it offers community solar power, and it received similar grades elsewhere.

Energy justice advocates say community solar power is one of the most important ways to make renewable energy accessible to everyone, while community ownership is key to ensuring the benefits of solar power are distributed more evenly. Community solar energy – the creation of small solar farms in community centers, vacant lots or nearby landfills – allows households that do not own or have access to a roof for rooftop solar energy to continue to benefit from renewable energies. This is especially important for renters, who make up nearly half of California residents and are more likely to be low-income and of color.

“Rooftop solar only applies to single-family homeowners or those whose rooftops can actually benefit from these rooftop solar installations,” said Alexis Sutterman, energy equity program manager at the California Environmental Justice Alliance, a group of organizations that work with environmental justice. state communities said High Country News. “That leaves many communities out, especially multi-tenant properties and multi-family affordable housing.”

“(Rooftop solar) excludes many communities, especially multi-tenant properties and multi-family affordable housing.

It is precisely these communities that would benefit the most from access to solar energy. On average, low-income, non-white households spend a much higher share of their income on energy costs — up to 45% in some cases. Historically, they have also suffered disproportionately from the health effects of living near oil and gas facilities. Yet nearly 90% of California’s 1.3 million rooftop solar installations are in owner-occupied single-family homes; just over 10% of households that benefit from reduced solar energy tariffs are considered disadvantaged communities.

Now, the California Public Utilities Commission is considering a major move to reform its Net Energy Metering (NEM) policy for rooftop solar. The system decides how much money residents will save with solar power. The state’s three major utilities say the savings currently enjoyed by solar customers are so significant that those customers are no longer paying their fair share for running the overall energy grid. A CPUC report explains that “the costs of the NEM are disproportionately paid by younger, less affluent and more disadvantaged taxpayers, many of whom are tenants”. The commission is using this as a way to justify its decision to change the benefits enjoyed by solar customers. It also plans to charge these customers for using the grid and reduce the amount they are paid for energy they sell back to utilities.

A protest against California’s utility companies at the state capitol last year.

Courtesy of Solar Rights Alliance

But if equity were really a concern, energy justice advocates say, encouraging community ownership of solar power would be the real goal. In February, the California Environmental Justice Alliance wrote a public letter to the Public Utilities Commission urging it, among other things, to “take immediate action to expand access to community solar projects to effectively reach tenants and residents living in older housing who continue to face significant barriers and limited options to participate in the clean energy transition.When asked to comment, the CPUC responded that while the community solar is not being considered at this time, according to the current net metering tariff ruling proposal, “the CPUC…will consider community solar in the near future.”

California has incentives for community solar, but few actual projects have been built. Programs such as the Community Solar Green Tariff program, which enables disadvantaged communities to benefit from clean utility-scale energy and enjoy a 20% reduction on their energy bills, inadvertently favor large, for-profit developers, said Ben Airth, senior distributed generation policy manager at the Center for Sustainable Energy. This means that the real long term benefits of community solar power do not go to the community. Plus, many of the co-benefits — like job creation — end up benefiting larger solar developers, rather than smaller and often more diversified companies.

For community solar power to effectively redistribute the benefits of renewable energy, both in the short and long term, it must be owned by the community, said Crystal Huang, co-founder and president of People Power Solar Cooperative. The biggest beneficiary of the energy transition is not consumers who can go solar, she said. High Country News, it is the investors who invest in the transition. “And if we’re talking about equity, you have to empower the consumer to become investors, especially low-income communities,” she said.

Residents gathered to celebrate the People Power Solar Cooperative project in an Oakland neighborhood which is the first co-op-owned residential project in California that brings direct financial benefit to the community.

Courtesy of People Power Solar Cooperative

Huang’s organization and other groups, including the California Environmental Justice Alliance, attempted to incorporate community ownership of solar power into the current NEM proposal last year as part of a larger testimony. broad submitted to the CPUC on behalf of the California Solar & Storage Association, a group representing more than 600 companies that work on solar power generation and service. But it was not included.

Without intentional focus and investment in community solar, Huang thinks many low-income and communities of color could be left out of the transition. California’s current rate hike debate only scratches the surface of a much larger equity issue that needs to be addressed, especially in a future where energy infrastructure and access to energy will be challenged by climate change. “If we’re really talking about climate justice, if we’re really talking about power shift,” Huang said, “then we’re talking about a completely different network that will respond to the reality that we see today in 2022.”

Sarah Sax is an environmental journalist and producer, specializing in climate change, biodiversity, land rights and gender. His work has appeared in outlets such as the Guardian, The Washington Post, Orion Magazine, WIRED, Mongabay, and Civil Eats. She was previously a climate justice reporter at High Country News.

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