The State of Solar: Experts at forum discuss challenges of increasing solar in marginalized communities, weigh in on community-owned solar

By MADDIE FABIAN

Staff Writer

Published: 09-24-2023 6:00 PM

Editor’s note: This is the third of four articles from the Western Massachusetts Solar Forum series taking place in September.

AMHERST — At Joe Czajkowski Farm in Hadley, not only does the broccoli field produce fresh vegetables, but rows of solar panels also generate electricity.

That use of land is known as agrovoltaics, or dual-use solar. And in this case, not only does it create energy savings and an additional revenue source for the farm, but it also provides discounts on electric bills for local low-income solar subscribers.

Community-owned solar projects, like the one at Joe Czajkowski Farm, were at the forefront of discussions at the third Western Massachusetts Solar Forum, a series being held remotely by UMass Clean Energy Extension each Tuesday this September.

The forums — organized in conjunction with Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Mindy Domb, and other solar stakeholders and specialists — have so far delved into the potential for solar in the state and nation, climate goals and energy needs, land use and other solar-related issues.

“One of the best things about this forum is that it’s collecting folks in our region in western Massachusetts and across the state who want to have this conversation with us,” said Comerford at the most recent forum which, like the other forums, drew over 100 attendees.

Tuesday’s forum included a panel of industry, academic, nonprofit, and government representatives, all with expert insights into solar equity and community-owned solar.

Community-owned solar

Community solar is a type of solar energy program where a number of individuals can subscribe to and share the benefits of a single solar system — whether that system utilizes rooftop, groundmount, canopy, dual-use, or any other type of solar energy.

Put differently, community solar allows people who can’t install solar panels on their own properties to access clean energy while simultaneously receiving credits on their electricity bills.

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Lynn Benander, president of Co-Op Power, referred to the process as “a very important way that communities can redirect the economic value of the solar revolution back into their communities.”

Such solar programs come with a number of community and individual benefits. For communities, the strategy generates income, energy awareness, decreased greenhouse gas emissions and new jobs for communities; and for individuals, the program results in a clean energy alternative and lower monthly energy costs.

“If we own the solar projects in our communities, then we have the jobs, the savings and the wealth that come along with it,” Benander said. “Especially in low-income communities, this offers an opportunity to… reinvigorate local economies, to create economic-social-political power that has been kind of stripped from low-income communities and communities of color.”

Solar equity

A study published in ScienceDirect by UMass researchers found that financial returns accrued for households that own solar are over 300% higher on average than financial returns accrued for households on leased solar systems.

Moreover, because low-income neighborhoods and nonwhite households tend to lease solar panels, rather than own, those groups on average receive lower financial returns.

“If we want equitable adoption of solar and not just access to solar, but access to the financial benefits of solar, we need a better understanding of these mechanisms behind low uptake of solar in low-income and minority communities,” said Christine Crago, one of the UMass researchers who co-authored the study.

Samantha Hamilton, manager of Live Well Springfield, said that communities of color tend to distrust clean energy solutions as a result of the “confusing, complication process and requirements for eligibility.”

Marketing strategies promoting things like “no cost, no feeds, no obligations” are particularly discouraging for vulnerable populations, said Hamilton.

“I want us to be mindful on messaging and how we approach vulnerable communities who really want the help that they need, but are in fear that big institutions will be taking advantage of them,” Hamilton said.

Nathan Phelps, managing director at Vote Solar, addressed systemic inequities in the Department of Public Utilities, which approves solar proposals, saying that “the communities that are most impacted by the energy system… are highly unlikely to be able to participate at the DPU.”

Chris Modlish, assistant attorney at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office — which intervenes at the DPU and advocates for Massachusetts ratepayers — added that consumer complaints related to residential solar energy often have to do with “aggressive and misleading marketing tactics,” “over-promising and under-delivering,” and inaccurate timelines.

“I fear we will never have a truly equitable energy system unless we actually address the embedded inequities that currently exist in the energy system,” said Phelps. “We should not expect that new policies alone can realize an equitable energy system.”

Other panelists also pointed to public participation in discussions around solar as crucial to achieving solar equity.

“It ensures that the voices of all stakeholders, especially those marginalized communities are heard and considered in decision-making processes,” said Ernesto Cruz, director of community organizing at Co-Op Power, who added that challenges in public participation include lack of transparency, complex technical jargon, limited access to information, and mistrust between communities and developers.

Making sure those voices are heard involves organizing awareness campaigns, community workshops, stakeholder engagement and incentive programs, said Cruz.

The fourth and final solar forum in the series will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 26 from 12-3 p.m. The event is open to the public, and registration and other information can be found at https://cvent.me/Onzl9G.

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com.]]>