The solar power revolution can benefit working-class people and communities of color

Here’s how one group is creating climate solutions rooted in clean energy justice in California.

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Adewale OgunBadejo is a workforce development manager at Grid Alternatives, the nation’s largest solar nonprofit. This contributed content represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

California leads the country in clean energy, from solar power and energy storage projects to electric vehicles and energy efficiency. The Golden State is also poised to lead the country’s next wave of clean energy growth — one centered on the promises of the Green New Deal.

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In the most populous county in the U.S., Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest solar nonprofit, Grid Alternatives, is deploying clean energy solutions while rapidly expanding its workforce development program. Grid Alternatives’ Los Angeles team sees the enthusiasm for what’s possible when everyone has access to clean distributed energy.

But we also see persistent barriers to access, such as a reliance on traditional financing systems, including FICO credit scores, and misaligned incentives between renters and landlords coupled with antiquated utility billing systems and a lack of modern net energy metering in rental units.

In places like South Los Angeles, a sprawling community stretching from downtown to the ports near Long Beach, these barriers are made more troubling by the fact that they tend to fall along lines of traditional inequities, deprioritizing populations that have been passed over for investment or hit by discrimination.

Reimagining what clean energy investments look like can foster a new era of economic growth and prosperity for local businesses and communities that rely on them. Meaningful investments in training, employment and entrepreneurship in clean energy services and technology, and support for the entities that train, hire and secure jobs for those hungry to be hired, will set precedents for the rest of the 21st century. While this work must happen at a local level, federal support will be critical to grow to a meaningful scale.

A community-based vision for clean technology

Two decades ago, Grid Alternatives founders Erica Mackie and Tim Sears started the nonprofit with a plan to install rooftop solar at no cost in places where saving extra money translates into significantly easing the burden of choosing between essential priorities, such as power, health care and food. The communities we work with have had a chance to give input to our program as it grew, ensuring it would stay relevant to their needs as we’ve installed solar on more than 2,500 rooftops.

This model has outlasted multiple recessions, the challenges of the Trump years and a global pandemic. The global focus on the transition from an extractive, fossil-fuel-driven economy to a clean energy economy presents an opportunity to take it even further.

By prioritizing the needs of people like those we’ve met in this work, in cities such as Long Beach, Compton and Carson in the middle of the West Coast’s industrial and shipping nexus, we’re poised to redevelop energy infrastructure in a manner that is just, equitable and empowering for all.

The 21st-century clean energy infrastructure redevelopment project

Working-class communities and communities of color suffer disproportionately under our current energy system and from the effects of climate change. That fact was acknowledged in U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 109, commonly known as the Green New Deal, which calls for a 10-year mobilization effort to move the U.S. electric system to 100 percent renewable and zero-emission sources, a boost in energy efficiency and investment in electric vehicles and high-speed rail, as well as job training and new economic development.

Climate change, pollution, and environmental destruction have exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices,” the resolution states. It also names the frontline and vulnerable communities” most harmed and at risk, including indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

Falling short of climate goals will perpetuate the systemic injustices delineated by the Green New Deal and widen gaps between the rich and poor. This work cannot eventually make its way into once-thriving areas like Watts and Compton — it must begin there.

Our goal in California

California has had specific funding targets for low-income and disadvantaged communities to receive proceeds from the state’s cap-and-trade program since 2016, yet less than 25 percent of clean energy investments go toward disadvantaged communities.

At Grid Alternatives, our plan of action requires a much greater scale to create prosperity and economic security and counteract systemic injustices for the people living there — a model that can be applied to other regions and the wider economy.

This will take a massive and multifaceted effort over the next 10 years to:

  • Repair and upgrade energy infrastructure.
  • Deploy distributed renewable energy and energy-storage technologies.
  • Identify and deploy residential and commercial energy-efficiency projects.
  • Provide education and training in those fields for members of the communities in which they’re deployed.
  • Ensure affordable access to electricity and fair compensation for distributed renewable generation.
  • Invest in renewable energy manufacturing capacity in these communities.
  • Invest in transportation electrification and electric vehicle charging equipment to serve these communities’ needs.

Seizing the historic opportunity

For the communities that Grid Alternatives works with, the core promise of the Green New Deal is a call to take responsibility for, and be the primary implementers of, a new and inclusive clean energy economy, although there is a role for businesses and civic institutions to play.

I was yearning for a career — something to help me develop an independent life for myself,” said LaNetra Barnes, a Long Beach native who received more than a year of paid training through Grid Alternatives and now works as a solar installer. I am excited about the change that was taking place in my community and the life changes we were making for families.”

The policies that matter most in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic are those that create pipelines to family-sustaining, green jobs in a diverse cleantech industry. I am hopeful that conversations around equity will make our thriving solar industry even stronger. At Grid Alternatives, we’re ready to be partners and models for implementation at a much greater scale. 

(Article image courtesy of Grid Alternatives)

Adewale OgunBadejo is a workforce development manager at GRID Alternatives. He focuses on renewable technologies and how they lead to green career pathways in traditionally underserved communities.