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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Sun and the City

Making solar power more accessible

Melissa Giorgi

To me, solar power makes perfect sense as an investment in stability, weighed against the uncertain pricing and limited availability of our world's fossil fuels. Of course, growing up in a part of California that basks in sunshine for the most of the year certainly reinforces my perspective. Even the political climate here is ripe for solar support, with state and federal initiatives uniting in an attempt to make panel installation more affordable. In recent years, I have watched the solar market grow in both residential and commercial demand. With these continuing strides, it sometimes seems that the whole Silicon Valley is bound to embrace solar power as its new technological sweetheart.

This pro-solar culture that seems so pervasive, however, has actually only touched certain neighborhoods and institutions of the Bay Area, one of them being Santa Clara University. The school itself boasts an impressive array of panels, as well as all kinds of energy initiatives like an electricity-saving competition among the student dorms. In the classroom, professors of various departments will speak openly about climate change, environmental justice, and the politics of "greening" ourselves. The University throws considerable resources behind the Solar Decathlon, an international contest hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy that challenges student teams to design and build a fully solar-powered home - without sacrificing the attraction and comfort of a conventional house. Yet immediately outside this sphere of influence, low-income and lower-middle income neighborhoods struggle with their utility bills, high Valley living costs, employment, and personal safety. In these neighborhoods, solar power becomes a laughably outlandish prospect viable only for rich environmentalists. Few have looked into how to bridge this chasm between the programs of the institution and the possibilities for average people. Solar power in the United States has found a niche market, but it is time to reach further out, into the whole community.

Not everyone agrees that solar power ought to be accessible to all. How then will we move into the future if we leave the overwhelming majority of people behind? This inequality threatens the progress that sustainability advocates hope to make. Solar advocates' goals include ending the environmental degradation proceeding from fossil fuel extraction and decreasing human contributions to climate change. Economically speaking, then, we have incentive to reduce the segment of the market that is forced to rely on the relatively cheaper provision of those fuels and expand the market viability of cleaner solar energy. The majority of people are low and middle income earners, which means that the largest market for solar power - the sector of society that could mean the biggest change in human footprint - is as yet untapped.

We have an ethical obligation to recognize that our society - as with many - is already rife with socioeconomic divides and environmental injustices that are manifested in marginalized communities. We are called to reduce these divisions, or at least to not actively widen them. If we desire to create a truly sustainable future, then we must not alienate some people from access to renewable resources and clean living techniques. A solar grid cannot be powered by only a few neighborhoods, nor can a society take action against climate change with most of its population dependent on fossil fuels. Certainly I am not arguing that solar power is the one and only solution to the question of human impacts on the environment. However, if solar is to be a real contributor to a sustainable future, then innovation and investment must focus on improving equality rather than increasing divisions. The insights of the South Bay stakeholders that I interviewed can help those at the forefront of solar technology to target their resources at overcoming the various obstacles that prevent lower-income residents from engaging in the sustainability revolution so exalted in other areas of the Valley.

First, to find areas for improvement we must look at areas of success: how solar power is currently being applied in wealthier areas of the Silicon Valley. The most common application of solar energy is a home panel array on the roof to fulfill residential electrical needs. Even with rebates and financing options to spread the cost, price tags will run well above a thousand dollars. Now, this clearly low estimate indicates just how far solar energy is from being reasonable for people with lower incomes. One thousand dollars is not thrown around lightly - particularly when you could be saving for a child's education, or for emergencies, or for just responding to daily life. Immediate concerns or actions with more long-term benefits, such as schooling or the purchase of assets, are much more visibly logical places to invest money if you have a slim budget.

Although some solar companies have a policy of locking in beneficiaries at a monthly payment lower than their usual utility bill in order to pay off the panels slowly, few people are aware of this option and few companies can promise this deal for every client. Upon sharing this information with South Bay residents, they asked, "And what if my family uses more energy in the winter than my panels provide? I pay for the panels and I pay the utilities?" Some low-income people with families, I learned, must tap a special fund to help them pay utility bills that have become emergencies because of their size. Each month that a smaller electricity bill was forgotten or was not prioritized then compounds until the bill calls for too much money to be paid at once. At this crisis moment, then, the family reaches out for help money that comes from the state and is channeled through a local community services center. Representatives of this center informed me that despite the involved application process, more people require utility assistance than they can usually accommodate. On the face of it, solar energy looks like it could solve this issue by neutralizing the cost of electricity for low-income residents struggling to pay bills and maintain a consistent income. However, the cost of the panels themselves and the method of paying them back as if it were your utility bill simply reiterate the original problem - that not all monthly expenses can be met in all months, by all people. The resulting back-up in bills creates an urgent situation with limited resources for help; there will surely be no fund for "solar panel assistance" as there is for utility assistance when bills pile up.

Aside from the costs of actual panels, low-income neighborhoods suffer additional costs often forgotten by others. Buildings tend to be older and less renovated to meet modern building conventions - if they are renovated at all - in these areas. After a discussion with a city official who has implemented a "greening" program in disadvantaged neighborhoods, I learned that buildings with original fuses must receive costly upgrades to a new fuse box in order to be compatible with solar panels. This additional financial burden can add hundreds to a thousand dollars to the sticker price of the panels and solar contractors do not usually perform the work, thus complicating financing options and necessitating a great deal of extra legwork. As a further complication, the least expensive panels are the older ones, which require more maintenance and are less energy-efficient than the top-of-the-line. Even if the building itself is properly renovated before panel installation, an older and more inefficient array cannot produce the benefits needed to warrant the "upgrade" in the first place. In fact, a newer building with newer panels could still fail to provide the desired effect if it is not properly weatherized or is not outfitted with energy-efficient appliances. (It is imperative that we consider weatherization and energy efficiency as associated considerations for increasing solar viability and decreasing fossil fuel reliance.) The number of upgrades – and the costs - thus continues to rise.

In addition, my city government correspondent also explained that many low-income homes have made renovations without permits or are using spaces in prohibited ways - such as allowing additional family members to live in the garage, or exceeding occupancy limits. These workarounds for the expenses of living in Silicon Valley and the hassles of obtaining permits make city-run solar initiatives difficult. Trust between family and city becomes strained: the residents feel they could be castigated for illegitimate property usage, and the city must oblige them to obtain proper permits in order to spend municipal funds on solar improvements to the home. Many deals have fallen through because residents cannot afford permits to legitimize renovations or are unable to adjust their living situation to suit city laws. Who would evict their own extended family, fallen on hard times and using whatever living space they can find, so that the city would install a home solar array? People of all socioeconomic levels must prioritize, and neither rich nor poor tend to place law - much less environment - over family and day-to-day survival.

In summary thus far, we have established that cost is an issue, as are city ordinances that affect eligibility for programs that make costs more manageable. Perhaps these obstacles seem to be nothing new. However, there are less obvious obstacles blocking the path to renewability as well. One issue that has come up repeatedly in my interviews with city government, local educators, and community services providers is that low-income neighborhoods are often overwhelmingly comprised of renters. Not only is a renter unable to make the decision to install solar, but a property manager also has no incentive to purchase solar panels for a home or apartment complex in which he or she does not live. Any logical businessperson would readily explain that it is a frivolous expense. One principal asked me, "How do you make that attractive? Find out how to sell the property owners on it and you have my attention!" I admitted I was not sure; this is the question that proponents of solar energy must answer if we truly believe that a renewable revolution is in our future. Solar will not - and cannot - become widespread unless we can make it accessible and reasonable for everyone. Otherwise it will always remain a niche novelty.

If costs are too high for installation, old buildings may be ineligible, and local initiatives are of limited usefulness due to simple realities of life, then where is the place for solar energy in the average community? Is this technology, the heralded energy source of the future, to be reserved for those who can afford to pay and afford to care? I say no.

Solar energy is cropping up around the world neither because other nations are wealthier and nor because other cultures are more environmentally conscious. We simply need to expand our mindset and think outside of the traditional "residential panel array" that we envision when someone speaks of solar energy. There are less expensive applications of solar energy for the home. For example, solar pool heaters or household water heaters replace energy-intensive appliances and use the power of the sun to warm water on the roof. Though water must be pumped up to the roof with electricity, gravity takes it back down after it is warmed in tubes and the overall electrical footprint is much smaller than a tank water heater. This improvement could be reasonable for public or apartment complex pools - perhaps attractive to property owners who provide pools but are on a budget - or for family use in the home for showers and appliances.

On an even smaller scale, there are solar phone chargers that are conveniently small and easy to take with you; a family full of cell phone users may also appreciate lower electricity bills, and the chargers themselves form a relatively inexpensive one-time purchase. A small solar panel can be used to power a fan; in fact, this is one of the applications advertised as a child's school project. This application could take the place of more expensive air conditioning upgrades in a building or home. The solar oven, meanwhile, is a way to cook food outside and an easy home-engineering project that requires only simple materials with no panels at all. It is a great way to avoid heating up a home in the summertime with the use of a conventional oven, and it has been adopted in rural areas of poorer nations to ease the health issues that accompany cook fires and the unavailability of electricity.

Perhaps we will not be able to make solar panels themselves drastically less expensive; perhaps property owners will not be convinced to install arrays on rented buildings, whether they can keep later energy profits or not. However, the solution to lessening the gap between the richer and poorer is in front of us: think smaller and think differently. Small applications of solar energy - like chargers, fans, water heaters, appliances - are scalable. These could make a different in carbon footprints if they are correctly marketed and made available. Think of them as a gateway to larger-scale solar power: a gateway to a city united in the sun. Affordability would be less of a problem; home ownership would be irrelevant unless a property owner desired to outfit a building with "solar features" such as these. Cities are already making use of solar-powered traffic alert signs or lampposts, which both encourages residents by placing solar in the public eye and helps neutralize energy usage in small but measurable steps.

A major step forward is the placement of solar arrays on public buildings. Initiatives that help put solar panels on schools or community buildings - particularly those in low-income areas - are more helpful than residential initiatives because such buildings typically have all their permits and are more likely to have been updated with modern wiring. Then, more money can be invested back into the students or community members rather than into utilities. As an added benefit, the size of the buildings and parking lots available for panel arrays increase the likelihood of producing power to return to the grid. In the case of schools, summers of low utility usage invite the break-even point to come even more quickly. Solar energy could be a way to make meaningful community investments that then free up money for diversion into other community projects. Not only can solar become a more visible and lauded energy source by people outside of the "rich environmentalist" circle, but it can also be a symbol of pride and self-sufficiency in neighborhoods historically left behind and considered dependent.

If we are to make solar power a reality, then we must be realistic about where it is useful. The voices of the lower-income areas in Silicon Valley are telling us something, as we sit surrounded by what seems like perfectly logical solar solutions. Residential panel arrays are nice, but they are not the near future. The near future must start smaller, and incorporate all sorts of people, before it can grow into the renewable energy revolution that solar advocates envision.

Melissa Giorgi was a 2012-13 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Jul 1, 2013