Energy democracy and equity

The energy system has long been dominated by monopoly utilities extracting profit from our communities at our expense. They’ve traditionally controlled where our energy comes from and how much we pay for it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A new energy system built on core values of democracy, equity, fairness, and local control is what we deserve. And it’s being built as we speak.

A democratic energy system is one that directs benefits and control back to local communities. We envision rooftop solar as the cornerstone of this new democratic energy system. Critical to its success will be making sure that everyone has access to solar electricity and can benefit from its many values. Electric bill savings, job creation, community health and development—these are the reasons we’re fighting for energy democracy.

Energy democracy and equity
Rooftop solar should be a democratic technology. Solar United Neighbors supporters attend a training on participating in utility regulation at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

What is energy democracy?

Energy democracy offers a new way of thinking about our energy system and who it serves. A democratic and equitable energy system offers several benefits that our current electricity system is lacking. Instead of a centralized energy system primarily owned by a few big utilities, energy democracy envisions widely distributed energy generation and ownership. That means generating more geographically and technologically distributed power—moving away from big, expensive power plants and to a system of widely-owned distributed energy resources. Energy democracy points towards a system governed by democratic principles and managed by a transparent, accountable, and public authority. And instead of reinforcing existing inequities of race, class, and gender, energy democracy demands an energy system that allows everyone, regardless of background, to access affordable electricity and to invest in clean energy technologies.

Why equity and fairness are essential for solar

Solar United Neighbors is fighting for an equitable and fair energy system because we build stronger communities when all people benefit from their power system. That means saving money, investing in smart technologies, and receiving the health and environmental benefits of a stronger, cleaner energy system. What’s more, the energy system should encourage equal participation from customers, owners, utilities, and public officials in its maintenance and regulation. Utilities have long possessed monopoly power over the physical infrastructure of the grid. Their monopoly should not be extended to the governance and decision-making around the future of our energy system.

To realize this vision of energy democracy, rooftop solar will be key. When solar is done right, it is an inherently democratic technology. People who own a solar array — from homeowners to community solar subscribers to business owners — become energy producers as well as energy consumers. We are determined to make solar affordable and accessible for everyone so that the economic opportunities of solar will also be democratically and equitably distributed.

Solar for all

Solar has been unfairly painted as a technology reserved only for hardcore environmentalists and the wealthy. In reality, people of all political stripes and incomes have already gone solar. Everyone should be able to benefit from solar energy.

The price of solar technology has fallen by more than 50 percent since 2010. This precipitous price drop, coupled with new financing options, is making solar accessible for an increasing portion of the population. In fact, in most of the 50 largest U.S. cities, producing electricity with rooftop solar is now cheaper than buying electricity from your utility.

While the market is trending towards lower prices, low- and moderate-income communities still face unique challenges going solar. The solar market has been slow to incorporate renters and persons with limited credit and financing availability. In response to this unfortunate reality, communities across the country are developing project models and policies to scale low-income solar deployment quickly and broadly. These projects can’t come soon enough. Nationwide, low-income families spend nearly 7.2 percent of their household income on utilities. That’s more than twice as much as middle-income families and three times as much as higher-income families. This strains already tight budgets and makes families significantly more susceptible to rising energy costs.

As we go through an energy transition, it is critical to equally emphasize equity as much as technology change. If a family can save money on electricity, it is better able to cover other basic needs, including food, housing, education, and medical expenses. Pushing for increased solar adoption goes hand in hand with fighting utility cut-off policies, low income tariffs, fixed charges, and other regressive energy policies.

Rooftop solar provides broad community benefits in addition to helping families save money. This includes creating local jobs, sparking economic growth, increasing property values, and lowering pollution levels. In short, solar provides significant benefits to the members of society that need them most.

One major challenge to expanding solar into underserved communities is the complexity of reducing the bill for residents living in rental unit apartment buildings, where each unit does not have its own electric meter. The same goes for public or subsidized housing where affordable and market-rate housing are combined. Other common challenges include lack of access to capital, less ability to utilize tax credits, and other roofing and siting issues.

Although it may not be easy to make solar accessible to every person in the country, Americans are tired of waiting. Communities are developing their own projects, and local governments are responding with better policies and assistance. Policies such as community solar go a long way toward making solar accessible and affordable for all.

Our work

Solar United Neighbors has been leading the charge on energy democracy and equity in all our state programs. We work on a number of policy issues that relate to energy democracy including community solarlow-income solar, and grid reform.

  • Community solar – Community solar allows renters, apartment and condo dwellers, and others who cannot install solar on their own roof to enjoy the benefits of solar via an off-site project. You can purchase a subscription to a community solar project and receive bill credits on your monthly electric bill that save you money. We have been intimately involved in starting community solar programs in D.C. and Maryland, and we are working to establish community solar programs in the other states. Learn more about our community solar work in D.C.Maryland, and Minnesota.
  • Low-income solar– Solar United Neighbors has been a strong advocate for programs to help low-income residents access and benefit from solar. In Washington, D.C. we worked diligently for years to establish a comprehensive low-income solar program called Solar for All. To implement the program, we launched a solar co-op in 2017 that allows low- and moderate-income District residents to receive grant funding to install a solar system on their home. Participants will fully own the system and will be able to build equity from its production. In Maryland, we piloted an innovative financing model with several low-income families in Baltimore which addressed two key challenges of solar for low- and moderate-income households: tax appetite and credit score. Learn more about our low-income solar work in D.C. Maryland, and West Virginia.
  • Energy affordability– Solar United Neighbors strongly supports energy affordability. We’ve fought against utility rate hikes and unfair monopoly tactics across the board. We led the PowerDC coalition opposed to the 2016 Exelon-Pepco merger, which could allow Exelon to use D.C. ratepayers to prop up failing power plants. We also led West Virginians for Energy Freedom, a campaign that successfully stopped FirstEnergy from using West Virginia ratepayers to bail out the failing, coal-powered Pleasants Power Station. In all our states, we fight for solar rights and energy affordability, and you can visit our Advocate for Solar page to learn more about our ongoing campaigns!
  • Grid reform – Creating a democratic and equitable energy future will require new ways to generate, deliver, and price electricity. We’re working in all our states to lay the groundwork for the needed transformation of our electric grid (known as “grid reform”). The Maryland and Washington, D.C. Public Service Commissions have undertaken grid reform proceedings (PC 44 and FC 1130, respectively). Solar United Neighbors is working to ensure that these proceedings allow meaningful public participation, take the needs of the community seriously, and move these states toward a more democratic, transparent, and equitable energy system.

Energy democracy and equity resources

Solar for all resources

These resources lay out why solar for low-income families is so important and describe some of the effective policy measures needed to make Solar for All a reality.

Solar for all pilot projects

When we were Community Power Network, we worked with groups across the country to promote leading project models for increasing solar access and equity.  Click here to learn about some of the leading models and pilot projects. You can see many of the programs we learned about and collaborated on below!

Some organizations, such as GRID Alternatives, have been offering ongoing programs aimed at bringing solar to low-income families or creating solar installation job training programs. Others are pilot programs that have tested various approaches to implementing low-income solar. The following is an incomplete list of low-income solar initiatives and models we’ve gathered. If you know of additional programs or models, please let us know!

  • Solar Holler – A social enterprise located in West Virginia, Solar Holler works to bring local clean energy to Appalachia’s community organizations, nonprofits, farms, and low-income residents. Solar Holler spun off of Solar United Neighbors of West Virginia (then called WV SUN) in 2014. Before founding Solar Holler, Dan Conant led Solar United Neighbors programs in Virginia and West Virginia. Now, he and his team develop solar and energy efficiency projects for West Virginia organizations and use local job trainees from Coalfields Development Corporation.
  • GRID Alternatives – A non-profit solar installer based in California, with regional offices around the US. GRID Alternatives leads teams of volunteers and job trainees who install solar electric systems exclusively for low-income homeowners. The installations provide needed savings for families struggling to make ends meet, prepare workers for jobs in the fast-growing solar industry, and reduce carbon emissions.
  • Nebraskans for Solar Energy – Nebraskans for Solar’s mission is to develop a statewide solar powered low-income housing program in partnership with our supporters and other nonprofits that build or rehabilitate low-income housing. In November 2013, Nebraskans for Solar and Habitat for Humanity of Omaha raised funds to install solar hot water systems on two efficient, Energy Star-rated Habitat for Humanity houses in Omaha. They are currently the only two solar-powered Habitat for Humanity houses in Nebraska. The organization continues to fund raise to put solar projects on Habitat homes and help local schools go solar.
  • New Vision Renewable Energy – A nonprofit located in Philip, WV, New Vision works locally and globally with faith-based and community organizations to get renewable products into the hands of the people who will benefit the most. They organize time banks and community “barn raisings” to help low-income families go solar and save on their electric bills. Read our detailed profile of New Vision Energy’s work in West Virginia.
  • Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Association (REEVA) – Located in Fincastle, Virginia, REEVA is a do-it-yourself club that helps members build solar/wind installations and electric vehicles at home, lowering the price of a project by removing labor costs. It also installs solar systems on community buildings and provides solar installation training to create jobs in rural communities.
  • Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative – Located in Plymouth, NH, PAREI’s mission is to encourage energy conservation and energy efficiency practices and to promote the use of renewable energy in the Plymouth region. They organize solar “barn raisings” to help low-income community members go solar at no cost.
  • Solar Richmond – A nonprofit founded in 2006 in Richmond, California, Solar Richmond offers free solar training, staffing services leading to temporary and permanent employment, and green business ownership opportunities for low income and under-employed residents. As a solar and green-jobs advocate, they work with partners to promote solar and inclusive green economic development in Richmond and the Bay Area.
  • Evergreen Cooperatives – Launched in 2008 by several Cleveland-based institutions (including the Cleveland Foundation, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and the municipal government), Evergreen Cooperatives create living wage jobs in six low-income neighborhoods in the Greater University Circle area. One initiative, Evergreen Energy Systems (E2S), designs, installs, and develops solar arrays for institutional, governmental, and commercial markets. E2S is 100 percent owned by its workers, who live in the City of Cleveland and face barriers to employment.
  • RREAL – RREAL is dedicated to making solar energy accessible to communities of all income levels. It has been pioneering the use of solar energy to address fuel poverty throughout the nation. RREAL accomplishes its mission primarily through its Solar Assistance program which provides residential solar energy systems to low-income families on public energy assistance as a lasting, clean, and domestic solution to fuel poverty.
  • Citizen Energy – A nonprofit in Imperial, CA, Citizens Energy installs solar systems on the homes of low-income customers of the electric utility’s Imperial Irrigation District. Citizen Energy partnered with San Diego Gas and Electric to co-develop the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line to provide more power to the Imperial Valley in CA. Revenue from the transmission line project helps fund the low-income solar installations.