The Next Economy
Unholy Alliance:
Why the Solar Industry's Continued Lack of Diversity Is a Win for Big Utilities

Environmental justice has been a small, but increasingly vocal, component of civil rights activism. After all, many organizations, including the NAACP, have documented the disproportionate health problems the United States’ 370-plus coal-fired power plants — which often happen to be located near neighborhoods in which the majority of residents are people of color — have had on minority communities. Activists including Van Jones, who briefly worked for the Obama Administration, have long highlighted what they say are the disproportionate impacts pollution and climate change have on minority communities. The problems are endemic in rural and urban communities alike, but from coast to coast, many environmental justice activists say businesses and governments are moving far too slow to address these various challenges.

When it comes to conventional sources of energy, especially coal, one would intuitively think renewable energy could help address the pollution problems confronting minority communities. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, commonly emitted from coal power plants, have been linked to health problems including asthma and other respiratory diseases — which are often found at higher rates in communities located near conventional power plants. Could alternatives such as more rooftop solar installations help reverse this trend? Not according to some civil rights organizations, and local chapters of the NAACP, who say solar is causing its own set of problems — most of them financial, as their benefits are out of reach for poorer citizens.

Florida, with its abundant sun and frequent threats from hurricanes, would intuitively be a natural for the accelerated installation of solar power. But the state recently pulled the plug on some incentives for rooftop solar systems, and the large utility companies who lobbied for the reversal found an unlikely ally: the state’s NAACP chapter.

Citing what it described as the “negative impact of renewable energy policies on our communities,” particularly low- and fixed-income residents, the Florida NAACP sent a petition to the Florida Public Utilities Commission last fall that boasted about 1,000 signatures. Arguing that state financial incentives served mostly to “subsidize wealthy homeowners’ rooftop solar installations” at the expense of “low-income, working class and minority communities,” the petition urged the commission to reverse the “regressive” program and only support renewable and energy efficiency programs from which “everyone” in the state could benefit. When the Los Angeles Times asked the Florida NAACP about its donor base, a chapter representative acknowledged that utilities were amongst its contributors, but refused to disclose a dollar amount.

The LA Times report also revealed similar relationships across the country at all levels of government. The Edison Electric Institute, a large nationwide association of utilities, which claims it has its own plan to combat climate change, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to state and federal African-American legislative associations. The result has been an alliance between them and utilities as both groups have spoken out against net metering, which offers homeowners and businesses the right to sell excessive electricity generated by solar power systems back to the local grid. They argue such policies benefit the affluent at the expense of the poor, and that those who benefit from solar should pay a surcharge to the utilities as they still have access to the grid.

Of course, people of modest means can also benefit from solar energy, especially when there are a variety of programs that minimize out-of-pocket expenses for homeowners. For those who rent, community solar projects are gaining traction, and allow for minimal investment in solar installations that benefit the wider community while offering a respectable rate of return. And despite the falling prices of oil, solar and other forms of renewables are become more cost-competitive, making them accessible and available to more consumers.

But just as many poorer neighborhoods are adjacent to power plants, so too are they often close to landfills and junkyards. And as more solar panels reach the end of their life span in the coming years, more and more of them, unless recycled or disposed of safely, will end up in a landfill — those panels contain a bevy of toxins that would end up in the surrounding environment, posing more health problems in neighborhoods that struggle with water and air pollution. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is just one example of community organizations that are trying to work with clean technology companies to become sustainable not only when their products are generating energy, but at the end of their life cycles.

Some say the problem stems from the lack of diversity with the solar industry. In an interview late last year with Green Tech Media, Reginald Parker, the founder of 510nano, a solar energy plant operator, outlined the double standards he and other African-Americans faced in building their businesses. While other minority groups, including Asians and Latinos, have a representation within the solar energy on parity with their percentage within the national population, African-Americans are underrepresented within the sector. And solar energy is still largely a man’s world: Women make up a sliver of the workforce within the solar sector — though that is also true of the building trades at large.

So while a lack of diversity may explain a disconnect between some citizens and the renewable energy sector, other observers insist utilities are using minorities as “pawns” in their fight against the growing acceptance of solar power. Arturo Carmona, Executive Director of the activist organization Presente.org, has pointed out that within California net metering has created jobs and delivered clean energy to a wide range of communities. He argued that two-thirds of the rooftop solar installations in California are in low- and middle-income communities, refuting the charge that solar is merely an indulgence for the wealthy. Of the 47,000 jobs related to the solar industry, 20 percent are held by Latinos, and Carmona has argued Latino communities by and large want to see more solar, not less.

Utilities are welded to their business model, which for the most part have seen little change over the past 100 years. Smart grids, energy storage, net metering, and off-the-grid clean technologies threaten to wreck their businesses in the long run. Like any vested interest, they will do what they can to protect their business. Many of them already have diverse workforces, so taking a long-term approach to the changing nature of energy could benefit utilities in the long run if they invest in these new technologies and train their employees to operate them. Finding ways to profit from renewables, instead of trying to push them away, would create more goodwill instead of this current alliance with a few civil rights groups, which comes across as cynical and short-sighted.

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