Solar corporate social responsibility that pays10. April 2012 By: Erica Macke, Grid Alternatives
Erica Macke, co-founder and executive director of Grid Alternatives believes that for solar to gain widespread acceptance, and for it to reach the people who can benefit from it most, it needs to be seen not just through an environmental lens, but also as a "real-world solution to real-world problems". Corporate social responsibility (CSR), she argues, can help achieve this goal.
On a cold, sunny day in March, a who’s who of the California solar industry lobby gathered in Sacramento for a press conference and subcommittee hearing at the state capitol. The topic of the day was net metering rates, an issue that, along with California’s current five percent net metering cap, is likely to dominate the solar policy agenda for the next couple of years.
At the heart of the debate over net metering and other programs that incentivize solar adoption is an assumption about solar customers that is widespread among policy makers and the public: they are people of wealth, thus making any incentive for solar, a subsidy for the rich.
As with many new technologies, it was the wealthy who could afford to take the financial leap of faith into solar. But that’s not the whole picture anymore. As solar has gotten more efficient and become more widely adopted – thanks in no small part to those incentives – prices have dropped and it has become more accessible.
U.S. residential solar systems still cost a lot up front – from between US$10,000 and $40,000 on average, depending on the system size – but a number of efforts have come together to make the economics work well for ordinary consumers, from rebates to net metering, to innovative financing and ownership models. The California Solar Initiative (CSI) has also helped level the solar playing field in the last five years, by providing a larger rebate for qualifying low-income homeowners and affordable housing developments throughout the state.
Grid Alternatives, a non-profit solar installer, administers the single-family home component of that low-income rebate program. In an analysis of CSI data, we found that the percentage of new rebate applications coming from communities with median incomes exceeding $100,000 dropped by half, to 10 percent, from 2007 to 2011, while the percentage of applications from middle- and low- income communities continues to rise. In 2011, communities with median incomes of less than $75,000 made up 64 percent of applications; 17 percent came from communities with median incomes of less than $50,000. These numbers are corroborated by an analysis of solar installations done last fall by PV Solar Report and Sun Run.
This growing shift notwithstanding, solar still has an image problem. And as long as that remains true, the policy-level support that has helped get solar where it is today will be constantly challenged on equity grounds. For solar to gain widespread acceptance as a public good worthy of ongoing national investment, it needs to be seen not just through an environmental lens, but as a real-world solution to real-world problems.
In the communities that Grid Alternatives works in, it starts with the math. Most of the homeowners we serve would never have considered solar, and yet they are people who need the savings the most. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Service’s LIHEAP program, low-income folks spend on average twice as much of their income on household energy bills as the rest of us, and they are the most vulnerable to fluctuations in price.
Take Elmer Rankin, a disabled vet living on a fixed income. Last winter, he was forced to choose between running his medical equipment and running his heater, because of high energy bills. He chose the equipment and ended up back in the hospital when his body shut down from the cold.
Without California’s low-income solar rebate and support from Grid Alternatives, Elmer would still be making those choices today. Instead he is generating the electricity he needs from his own roof. Other clients use their savings for food, clothing, and college tuition.
This is a population that has an enormous need for solar technology and the energy price stability it offers, but that, despite lowering costs, will not be able to reap its benefits without some kind of outside help for the foreseeable future. If we continue investing in this population at and above the level that we have been – both as an industry and a nation – and show that solar works for low-income communities, we can make the case that it works for anyone and everyone. Only then can we truly begin to reap the environmental benefits that solar promises.
Many solar companies are already creating or expanding their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives in this realm, recognizing that just being green is not enough. As a non-profit, Grid Alternatives has experienced a steady increase in support from the solar industry in the last few years, culminating this year in major philanthropic partnerships with two industry giants, SunPower Corporation and Yingli Solar. Both companies are also investing in other socially responsible ventures worldwide – the SunPower Foundation’s Solar for Schools program, for example, and Yingli Solar’s community investments through the FIFA "Football for Hope" program in World Cup host countries, including South Africa and Brazil.
Like any good CSR initiative, this kind of solar philanthropy is a win for everyone. In addition to bringing tangible relief to struggling communities, these investments will help lift up solar as a viable, real-world solution to the problems of rising energy costs and fossil fuel dependence, and create the political will to support solar-friendly policies for everyone far into the future.
Erica Macke is co-founder and executive director of Grid Alternatives, a non-profit organization that trains and leads teams of volunteers and job trainees to install solar electric systems for low-income homeowners. Macke has a professional background both in social work and in renewable energy and energy efficiency consulting and sales, and has overseen the installation of solar electric systems and energy efficiency retrofits ranging in construction cost from $10,000 to $1.7 million. She holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Physics from Southern Illinois University.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.