Massachusetts State of Solar: Creating an Equitable Transition

By Savannah Kinzer, Investment Associate

Massachusetts currently remains first in energy efficiency across the country and has installed over 2,300 MW of solar, which makes up almost 10% of the state’s total electricity consumption. Solar prices have fallen 43% over the past five years, and this trend is predicted to continue. Massachusetts will remain a leader in solar deployment, but if one thing is clear from CABA’s State of Solar panel, it is that we must redefine what a solar industry leader looks like.

 
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Sunwealth’s Chief Development Officer Jess Brooks joined Massachusetts State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Deborah Donovan from the Acadia Center on a Thursday night panel to discuss current trends and the future state of solar, concluding one very prominent point: that equitable procurement and grid modernization are necessary pillars to considering ourselves the national leader in solar.

Now that the SMART program is finalized, one can likely expect the residential market to rebound in 2019, but as declining blocks are filled and net metering caps are hit, there is no debate among experts that this transition to a renewable energy economy must become more intentional about who is benefitting from solar procurement. A new study published by Nature Sustainability concluded that in census tracts, accounting for the same median household income, communities with over 50% residents of color have 69% less rooftop solar installed than tracts with no racial or ethnic majority.

Senator Diaz sees that we are more than capable of establishing checkpoints for ourselves to combat these patterns. As part of this goal, in January 2019 Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz has submitted a new bill (H. 3396 / S. 1831) to ensure solar deployment in Massachusetts is more equitable going forward.

“You have to always build in intentionality because at every step along the policy process – whether that’s legislation or crafting regulations or implementation – there is always going to be this sort of discount for minority communities and low-income communities,” says Senator Diaz. 

But what does intentionality look like exactly? Senator Diaz says that we must ask how the legislation will serve communities of non-English speakers and low-income communities. Jess Brooks says that we must ask the questions that let us know how our partners are intentional about the diversity of their work.

“Those of us in the industry have a say in what we want the clean energy transition to look like and our daily work must reflect this,” says Brooks. “At Sunwealth, we work with developers who actively try to minimize and reverse inequities in where we install solar, how we install it, and, most importantly, which members of our communities this impacts.”

Deborah Donovan sees grid modernization as a necessary ingredient not only to complete this major shift – to decarbonize our energy economy – but also to protect vulnerable communities.

“We know the benefits of solar deployment include resiliency, contributions toward reliability, increasing the diversity of generating technologies, local employment, and economic benefits,” says Donovan. “But there are also opportunities for adaptation for communities with microgrids.”

Unanimously, the panelists agreed that equitable procurement was going to take some heavy lifting on all of our parts, but it was Senator Diaz who quoted FDR by saying, “‘No nation however wealthy can afford the waste of its human resources’, we are leaving a lot on the field, but we need everyone to participate and we need everyone in the game.” 

Solar can imbue a sense of empowerment among these disenfranchised populations; when citizens see solar on their roofs, they start to take ownership of climate change as their issue, but this all starts with changing demand. Demand takes a lot of forms including, partnering with local developers who are committed to our communities, engaging with local representatives on the issues we care about, and demanding that our municipalities are doing the best they can to source clean energy, and increasing the demand for renewables by investing in them yourself.

 Investing in solar, whether that be for your home, community, or a project elsewhere, drives the demand for this market to change. Sunwealth finances commercial and residential solar projects across our country, but we are strategic about which communities and with which contractors and developers we partner with. We are building the base for a more equitable future, fighting climate change, creating sustainable job growth, all the while making returns from investing in these goals. We are only as strong as our weakest link and we must therefore come together and deliberately empower all our communities in this rapid transition to a clean energy economy by driving just policies, grid modernization, and the intentional, equitable procurement of solar.

Jon Abe