The effects of the climate crisis are already being felt by communities throughout the United States. Low-income communities and communities of color are often the most vulnerable to economic and health-related threats resulting from extreme weather events, including fires, heat waves, and hurricanes. Community solar reduces our reliance on the fossil fuels that warm the planet and drive this crisis, and it can also provide significant economic and health benefits to the communities that need them the most. Indeed, community solar generation is a local solution to a global problem.
Expanding the development of carbon-free energy is essential to addressing our rapidly changing climate. Displacing fossil fuel generation won’t just combat global warming, however. It will also significantly reduce local air pollution levels that disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities living in close proximity to power plants. A 2018 study conducted by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, found that low-income communities faced a 35 percent higher burden from particulate matter — one of the most toxic forms of pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants — than did the overall population, while non-whites faced a 28 percent higher burden. The disproportionate impact was even more pronounced for African American communities, which faced a 54 percent higher burden than did the overall population. Exposure to these pollutants has serious health consequences, especially for children and the elderly.
Despite these well-understood disproportionate burdens – and despite regular warnings from the scientific community that we need immediate and aggressive action to drastically reduce carbon emissions – the Trump administration has done little to recognize the scale of the problem, much less take action to address it. Despite this inaction at the federal level, rapidly declining costs associated with renewable energy development and efforts at the state, city, and community levels have bolstered the development of clean energy resources. Community solar is one powerful tool that jurisdictions are employing to tackle the climate crisis.
Community solar generation can be a major climate tool
The benefits of community solar are widespread. Because community solar does not require self-siting on an individual rooftop, it strengthens options for renters, occupants of multi-family housing, and individuals whose roofs are too shaded to generate solar electricity. It also eliminates the need for re-roofing and other structural demands that are often necessary for hosting solar panels and that make rooftop solar particularly challenging for low-income individuals. And because utilities compensate participants for the electricity that their shared solar panels contribute to the grid, community solar provides economic relief from the burdens of high energy costs. For all these reasons, community solar helps address the barriers that have long prevented low-income communities from accessing the broad benefits of renewable energy.
While deployment of community solar systems today remains limited – and while the scale of community solar systems may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to utility-scale renewables – the interest in and impact of community solar generation should not be underestimated. When project submissions opened for the Illinois Adjustable Block Program last month, for example, applications for community solar projects poured in. Within weeks, there were 931 applications for community solar projects, representing about 1.8 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. 1.8 GW is roughly the average capacity of Illinois’ nuclear power plants, or enough to power nearly 300,000 homes annually. While the program can’t accommodate all these projects right off the bat, this development demonstrates a striking level of interest in renewable energy. Illinois and other states should continue creating and expanding policies that eliminate barriers to market adoption of community solar.
The benefits of community solar will only expand over time. Solar systems often generate electricity when demand for power is highest. Solar thus eliminates the need to fire up the dirty and pricey power plants that would otherwise handle peak demand – thus saving customers money and significantly reducing pollution levels. In addition, because community solar systems need not be sited on particular rooftops, they can be placed in locations that regularly pull the most electricity from the grid. Their locational flexibility can thus offer targeted grid relief that benefits customers and utilities alike.
Other states can learn from Illinois as they develop community solar programs. The state’s Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), which passed in 2016, will create 160 megawatts (MW) of community solar projects by 2021 and around 400 MW by 2030. The recently-introduced Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) will further strengthen the development of community solar in Illinois. It will also bolster inclusive workforce training initiatives that strengthen opportunities for low-income and environmental justice communities enjoy the longer-term benefits of renewable energy development, including jobs in the solar and energy efficiency sectors.Teaser image CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 courtesy of The City Project.