Last week, communities across the state got a huge win in the Public Service Commission’s recently established community renewables policy. While all residents stand to benefit from this decision, the policy has special significance for the state’s communities of color.
Not only does the policy expand access of solar programs to renters, the policy will prioritize projects that meet a 20% participation rate of low-income residents and provide $13 million in funding to make solar accessible and affordable. This is, by far, the largest inclusionary goal of any shared renewable policy in the nation.
As we have written before, community-owned renewables is essential to building a more inclusive economy where residents can be full participants and owners in our energy future. Community renewables:
- Opens up renewables to residents who do not own property to participate in solar by changing the rules for shared energy production;
- Creates wealth as energy savings from solar and earnings from energy production can go towards other community needs; and
- Builds resilience as communities of color, who are more likely to be impacted by natural disasters like Katrina and Sandy, can be better positioned to address the loss of power in their communities.
More importantly this policy puts a stake in the ground for racial equity in two ways:
- Nearly 2 in 3 households of color are renters in New York, this policy opens renewable production to them. Simply put, shared renewables allows renters to participate in an energy economy. Therefore, anyone who pays an investor-owned utility bill (like Con-Ed or NationalGrid) can opt to purchase a share of a solar project that is off site and “virtually” connect to it. They will earn credit on their electricity bill for the energy that their share produces. This is important because solar no longer becomes a boutique project for those with land and wealth; it becomes accessible for all of us, in particular people of color.
- People of color are more likely to benefit from the 20% low-income inclusionary goals. To qualify as a low-income participant in the shared renewable program, one must be enrolled in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) or a utility sponsored energy affordability program. Last year, nearly 1.3 million households (19% of the state) participated in HEAP. And while there is not race-explicit data available on HEAP users, we do know from the available data that HEAP-eligible residents are predominately people of color. For example, to qualify for HEAP in New York a household must earn no more than 218% of the federal poverty level. And while 3 in 5 of New York’s households are White, households of color are more likely to be in poverty.
While this is a big win, the work is far from over. Implementation to achieve racial equity within shared renewables is not clear. We need to continue to advocate that the Public Service Commission centers racial equity as it looks to successfully implement its energy programs. Here are three critical ways to do so within the context of the shared renewables plan:
- Demand that grassroots and environmental justice leaders of color drive the agenda of the proposed “low-income collaborative”. The PSC wisely acknowledges that barriers to low-income participation are more nuanced than the barriers of income and housing tenure. In order to better understand this, the PSC is convening a low-income collaborative that will research, assess, and provide more nuanced solutions to ensure equitable implementation. Grassroots and community of color leaders must be central to this collaborative. The PSC would be right to engage, prioritize, and listen to organizations like PUSH Buffalo, Sustainable South Bronx, and UPROSE within this Collaborative.
- Elevate ways that public housing residents can participate. Many of New York City’s low-income residents of color also live in public housing, which means they don’t receive a utility bill through traditional means and often receive their power from the New York Power Authority, which does not fall under the PSC’s jurisdiction. But that does not mean we should shut them out. We need to ensure that public housing residents have an opportunity to partake in the City’s Implementation of going 100% renewable energy. The city and the New York Power Authority should engage and listen to community organizations like GOLES and Community Voices Heard to better understand how residents can be positioned as owners and decision-makers.
- Utilize a race and economic equity metric tool to better invest and support the necessary infrastructure for low-income communities and communities of color to participate. Shared renewables is a great opportunity, but it won’t necessarily solve the challenges that face low-income residents, particularly people color who are more likely to suffer from high heating bills, increased utility-shut offs or home health hazards like lead paint and mold. Further, the history of disinvestment has often led to the lack of vital infrastructure and resources that can enable community participation in energy programs, such as community solar. As the PSC moves towards implementation of its energy plans – it must keep these holistic challenges at the fore. The PSC should use a race and economic equity metric tool to better understand these comprehensive challenges and identify ways to invest in communities so they can be in a better position to engage in projects like shared solar.