ILSR guest post

How 30 million solar homes can confront the climate crisis, address racial inequality in the energy sector, and get people back to work

From the street, Shiloh Temple in North Minneapolis looks like many other houses of worship across the country. But a birds-eye view of the church reveals the unique connection Shiloh has to the heavens – a connection that allows Shiloh to make an outsized impact on the lives of its congregants and other residents of this historically Black community.

Shiloh Temple has a rooftop solar array that generates enough electricity for the church to lower its energy bills – freeing up money for other critical community needs. The installation and maintenance of the panels also provide good-paying jobs for a diverse workforce. And because the church and its congregants actually own the system, it ensures that decisions about the energy Shiloh generates are retained in the community (it’s literally local power!) 

Now, a group of organizations, businesses, and local officials are engaged in a campaign to bring the benefits of local solar to millions of Americans. In a letter sent to Congress earlier this year, the group – which represents millions of Americans – is calling on Congress to embrace the goal of 30 million solar homes powered by solar in five years.   

With this effort, we’re looking to build on the popularity of rooftop solar by dramatically expanding the number of Americans who can benefit from it. As Journalist Sammy Roth recently pointed out in the LA Times, “critics have long dismissed rooftop solar as a niche product for wealthy homeowners who want to feel good about going green or are looking for security against blackouts,” but local solar can do so much more than that. As the Shiloh example demonstrates, it can be part of the solution for three profound challenges impacting our nation: the climate crisis, economic insecurity, and the persistent problem of racial inequality

An ambitious sun shot like 30 million rooftops – placing solar on the equivalent of one in four American households –  can be targeted to provide an immediate economic impact in the places that need it most, including disadvantaged urban and rural communities. Solar projects can be planned, constructed, and energized in a matter of weeks, providing rapid economic stimulus. Energy bills can be dramatically reduced within months for families still grappling with the economic uncertainty of the pandemic. And down the road, the financial rewards of lower bills, solar ownership, and good-paying solar jobs can support wealth accumulation in local communities. Rather than shipping its energy dollars out, solar keeps those dollars in the community.

The solar on Shiloh’s roof produces clean energy and saves money, but it also gives the local community control over its energy future since ownership of the solar panels stays at the local level. That differs dramatically from the current energy system, in which decisions about energy sources – as well as the benefits and harms stemming from those sources – can change without any meaningful input from energy consumers. 

Shiloh Temple Solar
The Shiloh Temple solar project. Photo by John Farrell.

Traditionally, electricity is generated at large power plants and then sent to customers over long distances. The math of this system – massive power plants, sprawling transmission networks – lends itself to big, monopoly utilities. In a bit of circular logic that has dominated America’s energy systems for a century, monopoly utilities have created an energy system whose size and scale can only be met by, you guessed it, monopoly utility companies. These utilities, in turn, use their dominance to exert influence with lawmakers, resulting in sweetheart deals for their shareholders largely at the expense of customers. 

Rather than this arcane holdover from the early 20th century, an energy plan based on decentralized solar would democratize our energy system and transfer political power into the hands of millions of Americans.

We need better alternatives, and surveys show that people are clamoring for solar. No matter their political affiliation or where they live, more than 90 percent of Americans support expanding solar energy, according to the Pew Research Center.

It also makes broad-based fiscal sense by providing savings for everyone, not just solar owners. As a recent grid study has shown, building out small-scale solar in large amounts could save nearly a half trillion dollars in the climate-change fight

Placing solar on 30 million rooftops can also remedy some of the health, financial, and racial inequalities created by the model of big, polluting power plants – inequalities that have been exacerbated by the  pandemic. Of the millions of households to get solar under this proposal, most of the funding would be targeted to communities with a history of racial, financial, or other structural barriers. In far too many instances, these communities have borne disproportionate pollution burdens from existing power plants, as evidenced by elevated asthma levels in many of these communities. 

The challenges we are facing right now are unprecedented, so our policy response must be big and bold. Old systems launched in the early 1900s and marked by more than a century of poor results for many are clearly not the answer we need right now. 

As Shiloh Temple looks to the heavens to power its community impact, let’s look to places like Shiloh for our inspiration. We can create local clean energy. We can put people in historically disadvantaged communities back to work. We can strengthen and diversify our sources of energy. We can keep local dollars in local communities. It’s time to scale up local power and the holistic benefits it brings. It’s time to bring solar to 30 million rooftops.

Guest author: John Farrell

This article was co-written by John Farrell, Co-Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and Director of ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not to EnergySage.

About the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The ILSR has a vision of thriving, equitable communities. We are a national research and advocacy organization that partners with allies across the country to build an American economy driven by local priorities and accountable to people and the planet.

Guest author: Subin DeVar

This article was also co-written by Subin DeVar, Co-Founder and Director of the Initiative for Energy Justice.

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About the Initiative for Energy Justice

The Initiative for Energy Justice is a national research center that provides law and policy resources to advocates and policymakers to advance state-level transitions to equitable renewable energy.