All posts by Sara Watson

Opinion: The faces of solar

Is solar really just for the rich?

As the popularity of rooftop solar circulates through states like California, it can be hard to resist the idea that renewable energy is just for the most educated and wealthy American people. In North Carolina, it is a rarity at all to see rooftop solar, let alone on the rooftops of those who are financially struggling.

Over my spring break in Los Angeles, CA, I have confronted the fact that solar can seriously benefit lower-income families, not just the rich. 

What if there was a way that we could lower the bills of low-income families significantly through volunteerism?

This is what 301(c)3 non-profit GRID Alternatives, a subsidiary of Solarcorp under Americorp, is doing by providing solar panels for low income families across the US at no cost to the homeowner.

How do I know? I installed the panels myself with the help of GRID’s amazing team and 11 other UNC students.

California operates under a feed-in tariff, where an individual can earn payment for the energy produced by their solar panels at a higher rate for a set period of time. In 2008, GRID was chosen as  the statewide program manager for its $162 million Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) incentive program.

The SASH program is the first in the country to provide significant rebates for solar energy for low income housing, directing 10 percent of California Solar Initiative funds to be set aside for programs assisting low-income households in accessing solar technology.

What this means is in California, solar has to be inclusive, and the government funds projects that work towards this goal. That’s where GRID comes in.

There are some requirements to get no-cost solar: you must live in a state determined low-income neighborhood, be within a certain income bracket, own and live in the home, and have a nice, sturdy roof. Once all those boxes are checked, you are then on the list for getting solar panels that can reduce your monthly electricity bill by over 50 percent. In many cases, an electricity bill reduction can mean a world of difference.

The people who benefit from GRID go beyond just the people that receive solar. The solar industry is a booming one in California that creates many jobs that require experience and training. I think all of us have gotten rejected from a job for not having enough experience. But how are you supposed to get experience without a job?

GRID is also working to close this chicken-and-egg situation through volunteerism. GRID installs all of its solar panels using volunteers, including veterans, who can then use this experience to apply for jobs in the for-profit solar industry.

In North Carolina, the 35 percent tax credit for investment in renewables died at the end of 2015. This tax credit led to a boom in solar investments in the state, and continued investments in solar could have led to job opportunities across the rural-urban divide. Without this tax credit, renewables in North Carolina faces serious trouble as the incentive to invest no longer exists.

Not only have renewables struggled in North Carolina, but individuals as well. Electricity bills in North Carolina are 9.35 percent higher than the national average and low-income families often have to choose between electricity and food in the winter months because of high oil prices. And while solar may not be the perfect option year-round, the savings that these families can earn could literally save their lives.

So who are the faces of solar? As for me, they are Maria Gonzales, the woman who will save $300 off her energy bill every month due to the solar GRID installed on her roof over UNC’s spring break. They are the faces of the men and women I worked side by side with who started as volunteers and are now paid members of GRID’s training force.

Will we stand behind the myth of solar only being for the wealthy, or will we take leaps towards energy equality? Will we take advantage of the opportunities that solar presents, not only for people who have solar themselves but the jobs it creates?

North Carolina: it’s your move.