Working With Communities to Develop an Equitable Solar Future
Dad used to send me articles from The Santa Clara about how well the university was doing in the 2007 and 2009 Solar Decathlon competitions. He would say, “Look! Big institutions do care about environmental issues. People are standing up for change. It’s coming!” I remember my amazement that a group of students was knowledgeable, passionate, and organized enough to design and build a solar-powered home that actually looked like a home, not a science experiment. Those were my first inklings that I might have caught the enthusiasm for renewable energy that has permeated the Bay Area in recent years. I found myself still skeptical, though; just how far could one competition go towards making sustainable living a reality? The Solar Decathlon is a well-cared for seed, but what would it grow into?
This curiosity made me jump at the opportunity to join the Solar Decathlon team in November of 2012. I joined knowing that engineering or design would not be my contribution; I wanted to push the boundaries of our outreach program and thus take the competition beyond the university’s borders. The rising prices and limited availability of fossil fuels - in combination with the long-term effects of climate change - affect everyone around us. We have an ethical obligation to consider not just our “target” audience of those who could afford a solar array under the current cost constraints, but also our whole community. Everyone could benefit from solar energy if we continue to work towards making it more affordable and understandable. I decided that our outreach efforts should involve opening ourselves to the input and experiences of lower income students and their parents, as well as learning from workers in the solar industry and those who have implemented solar neighborhood initiatives. These other stakeholders - the extended audience of our project - represent the other side of solar. They are not near-future panel owners. They are skeptical about how they might benefit from this technology. And because they are not widely recognized as potential partners, they are ignored in much of the environmentalist discourse. However, people of lower and middling incomes stand to gain as much as anyone else from renewable energy, if we can understand how to open up the path to them. This project explicitly reaches out to the communities left behind by traditional marketing strategies - not to advertise to them, but to let them speak so that we could learn.
I drew this strategy from Van Jones, a respected environmental and civil rights advocate. In his influential book The Green Collar Economy, he emphasizes the need of curious academics (like myself) to allow the people around them to share their expertise in the form of lived experience and insider knowledge. When dealing with environmental challenges and solutions, including people from beyond the ivory tower becomes especially important. At the moment, access to solar energy is unequal in our society; however, all people stand to benefit equally from the sun. For this reason, I focused on what Van Jones calls “eco-equity”: the adamant demand that a new environmental movement and burgeoning green industry must allow people from all levels of society to speak for themselves and be involved in co-creating a sustainable community, country, and world. After all, we live in an age of border crossings - both sanctioned and not. Employing eco-equity means including all parties at the decision-making table when we seek to tackle issues of climate change and renewable energy. We must respect voices from across the borders of socioeconomic status, race, gender, occupation, and nationality. Climate change knows no borders, and so to battle it we must enlist everyone - not just the “experts.”
I went out with an open mind to the diverse community all around us: the city of San Josè. At first, as I asked what people thought about solar power, I kept hearing the same answer: that solar was neat, but it was not an option. I realized I needed to change my question. If we want to know how to make solar energy feasible for the wider society, then we need to know why it is not feasible already. My sociological training recognizes that some of the most valuable contributions to social understanding are made by focusing on people who do not do certain things, in order to understand inaction. This new question opened up the conversation from just solar power to the wider milieu of social problems that prevent equal access to a sustainable lifestyle. Educators, city officials, residents, and service workers all shared their experiences with the complexities of bringing renewable energy to fruition in neighborhoods with older buildings, lower incomes, and more rented homes. Van Jones was right - these people were the experts on the reality outside of the Decathlon. Though implementing solar now seems more daunting, considering the many obstacles it faces before it can become widespread, I also feel more hopeful about the involvement and interest of community leaders and residents in taking ownership of change. Thanks to these interviews with people of lower and middle incomes, we have a better idea of what kinds of innovations would bring solar energy out of theory and into practice. Such directed innovation could mean that solar becomes practical more quickly for more people.
Actively incorporating the community into my project demonstrated where innovation for solar energy should focus to reach out to new audiences. We also demonstrated to community members that Santa Clarans are leaving the borders of the school and stepping into the community, so that we all can work together in ways that relate to the technological future of the Silicon Valley. The age of sustainability cannot be business as usual. Partnerships across social borders will solve the daunting environmental tasks at hand. This union of diverse opinions that culminate in innovation represents precisely the spirit of the Solar Decathlon. On the team, we need assistance from all disciplines to build one house. In life, we need ideas from all lifestyles to sustain and improve one world. This is how we take a solar competition and transform it into the formation of a solar community, where we are all together and united, enjoying the sun.
Melissa Giorgi was a 2012-13 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.