Solar energy is a cornerstone to solving the climate crisis and realizing a more just society
April 19, 2023
By Elowyn Corby and Kermit O
Discussions about climate change are often abstract, technical, or refer to a crisis on the distant horizon. A global temperature increase of 2 or 3 degrees Celsius (is that a lot?), greenhouse gasses, melting ice caps, extreme weather events.
For Pennsylvanians, these things may not seem like immediate threats when compared to the more urgent crises too many of us face everyday: food insecurity, spiking energy bills, unaffordable housing, and a lack of well-paying work.
But the truth is that we’re feeling the effects of climate change right here, right now, and it’s inextricably linked to our everyday struggles. In fact, it is making them worse, from the heat island effect increasing asthma hospitalizations, to the more frequent flooding ruining people’s homes in Eastwick.
Solar energy is a cornerstone to solving the climate crisis and realizing a more just society. And renewables are now the most cost-effective forms of energy being added to the power grid, outcompeting gas.
Because of the potential for community and individual ownership, solar has the unique ability to shift power – literally and figuratively – from corporate interests to real people. Yet for too many Pennsylvanians solar is out of reach, due to exactly the barriers you might expect: cost, living situation (e.g. renting), dilapidated roofs that can’t support panels, or simply lacking the bandwidth to navigate the process.
Enter community solar: local arrays, often under community control, providing power to many homes and businesses at once. Community solar creates local jobs, accelerates energy independence, lowers electric bills, and increases resilience by keeping the power on when large utilities fail.
Consider the example of Puerto Rico’s microgrids, which provided people with energy when the island’s entire grid went offline during Hurricane Maria. Community solar also flattens the curve of energy demand, and diversifies our energy mix so we’re better prepared in an emergency. This is especially important for low income and Black and Brown communities disproportionately impacted by climate change, and who have the least access to resources to protect themselves.
Although community solar is accelerating rapidly across the nation, here in the Keystone State we’re still waiting for our elected officials to get on board.
This is a problem because the status quo isn’t working: In most cases, monopolistic utility companies are taking a passive approach to decarbonizing their grids, if they’re not actively lobbying to maintain the existing system. Enabling community solar in Pennsylvania would allow everyone, regardless of housing type or income level, the opportunity to choose local, reliable, and affordable clean energy.
Schools, churches, and community centers that already provide services to the public could become solar energy hubs — like Shiloh Temple International Ministries, a church in North Minneapolis, which in 2018 installed a solar array on their roof to provide energy to about 30 mostly low-income homes.
With luck and elbow-grease, 2023 can be the year we pass community solar legislation – and we need to get it right, by maximizing low-income benefits.
Acting now will also allow us to capitalize on unprecedented federal investments in clean energy and build out that support into local clean energy economies.
The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will allocate billions of dollars in funding to climate mitigation and resilience projects, and emphasizes the importance of prioritizing communities that already have high energy burdens and are contending with environmental injustices. By using this funding for solar projects, low-income families could find much needed relief from rising electricity bills, which make up an oversized portion of their household expenses.
Unfortunately, having to wade through bureaucracy to access this funding creates a high barrier to entry for many people — especially those whose capacity is already drained by the everyday challenges of making ends meet.
Community solar programs would enable organizations to take on the burden of navigating these systems, and guarantee a wider impact. We have already seen how existing programs often have guaranteed savings, and set aside a meaningful portion of their capacity for low and moderate income participants.
This clean energy future is not just possible, it is essential. Pennsylvania should take the lead from the most impacted communities to decide which mix of provisions is best for our state.
We are calling for a process that engages with community voices and results in a program with strong consumer protections, and an emphasis on supporting low and moderate income communities.
If we are truly invested in creating an equitable society, with clean energy accessible for all, we need to push for community solar that’s responsive to the needs of Pennsylvanians, and places energy under the control of local communities.
Every day we wait, too many communities across the state miss out on solar’s potential to lower the cost of living, create local jobs, reduce toxic pollution, and build a brighter, more equitable, and resilient future.
Elowyn Corby is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director at Vote Solar, a national clean energy advocacy non-profit. Kermit O is an organizer and abolitionist working with communities at the intersections of land, food, and environmental justice, actively exploring paths toward self-determination and long-term resilience. Both are Pennsylvania residents.