Combatting Racial Disparities in Rooftop Solar Adoption is Up to Us


By Jon Abe

The rooftop solar industry has grown almost 50% per year since 2012 – an important trend that demonstrates that we are transitioning to a clean energy economy. When we take a closer look, however, the dark underbelly of the solar miracle comes to the surface. A recent report in Nature Sustainability shows that the financial benefits of solar flow disproportionally to “white-majority” communities, while leaving racial and ethnic majority communities behind. As solar investment and development accelerates, we must ensure that the benefits of clean, affordable renewable energy accrue to all of us.

In two decades working in this industry, both as a developer and for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I have seen firsthand the challenges of bringing solar to all our communities. From the lack of diversity in the solar industry, to tax-based solar incentives that benefit only those with high tax bills, to financing and business development practices that only target individuals and organizations with high FICO scores or credit ratings, our system is destined to create the very patterns observed by the authors of the Nature Sustainability report – a system of solar “haves” and “have nots,” divided largely on racial and economic lines. 

It doesn’t need to be that way. But un-doing these patterns requires vision, intentionality, commitment, and hard work. That’s exactly why we created Sunwealth.

Sunwealth is a Somerville-based clean energy investment firm driven to change who has access to renewable energy. Led by experienced solar industry professionals, Sunwealth has created diverse portfolios that include both commercial and residential projects, while delivering returns for local developers, installers, and investors. Since 2015, we have completed over 75 installations that will provide over $9 million in savings to our power purchasers and host locations and over $12 million in revenues to local solar developers and installers. From the very beginning, we have sought to work in those areas that are traditionally underserved by capital and to build diverse solar portfolios with a focus on access and inclusion. More than 50% of the projects we have developed and financed to date are located in low-income communities, and almost a quarter are located in communities of color. 

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Solar industry professionals may tell you that any racial disparities in solar deployment are unintentional, but that is exactly the problem. Unless we are intentional – intentional in including low-income people and communities of color in our outreach, education and business development efforts, intentional in who we employ and the customers we seek to serve, and intentional about where we locate our businesses – these communities will be left behind.  

Sunwealth is intentional in how we are building our business, and in the community of partners with whom we are building it. We are proud to partner with local developers, organizations and individuals who share our vision of a more inclusive renewable energy future, including the Massachusetts Clean Energy CenterResonant EnergyUnited Solar AssociatesGreentown LabsDorchester Bay Economic Development CorporationReinvestment FundBoston Properties, the City of SomervilleEpiphany SchoolHolyoke Gas and ElectricGreenpoint Manufacturing and Design CenterBoston Impact InitiativeVote Solar and the more than 125 investors who support our work. Together, we acknowledge the inequalities around us and work to combat them. Together, we are working to recognize solar’s full potential as a force to create energy savings, environmental benefits, jobs and revenues – not to mention the sense of ownership in the role we can all play in fighting climate change – in all of our communities, especially underserved ones.

Capital has a key role in this equation. We look to partner with investors who recognize that our transition away from fossil fuels needs to be a just one, and who are willing to align their resources to build a more inclusive prosperity. And we are helping to build an ecosystem of impact investors who are working together to ensure that the rising tide of sustainable investment lifts all boats. (Read more about this community and how we are getting to work in our recent blog post.)

The future of energy is coming and it will be fossil-free. Whether it benefits all of us or repeats the economic injustices we have seen in the past is up to us.

 About the Author

Jon Abe is CEO of Sunwealth. He is a renewable project developer, financier, and asset manager with deep commercial solar transaction experience. Previously, Jon was a Senior Vice President at Nexamp, where he served as the head of business development, asset management, and policy. At Nexamp, Jon supported the development and financing of more than 40 MW of commercial-scale solar projects. He was also General Manager of Nexamp Capital, which controlled a diverse portfolio of solar assets. Additionally, Jon worked for the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust where he developed and managed the $68 million Commonwealth Solar program. Go Pats.

Jon Abe