Solar panels in San Francisco. Photo Mabel Jiménez

Written for the green energy fellowship for New America Media, sponsored by PG&E

California is the leader of solar technology and one of the wealthiest states, yet its poorer communities in large part don’t have access to this expanding technology.

The Mission District, recognized for its Latino community, has for some time been battling the powerful push from the tech industry. From an environmental standpoint, the question is being raised, “What can be done to protect the very basic rights of its lower income citizens?”

The answer is complex, but increasingly it comes down to including low-income communities and communities of color in the legislation being passed regarding solar technology, and actively including them in the solar workforce.

Jeanine Cotter, president and CEO of Mission-based Luminalt Solar Energy Solutions and an advocate for solar in her community, recognizes the key importance of creating jobs in solar, not just in the field but also in the office.

“Most workforce development programs in solar focus just on the ‘boots on the roof’ and don’t focus on all of the other jobs that are required to design and build systems,” said Cotter, who believes it’s important to develop careers in all aspects of solar for diverse local communities.

Cotter works in her community to create initiatives that will allow more communities to have access to solar technology.

“We were part of a group of solar advocates and environmental advocates and workforce development advocates to start GoSolarSF,” Cotter said.

GoSolarSF is an incentive program that aims to localize solar, allowing low-income homeowners to save on the installed cost of solar electric systems.

Ensuring that everyone can benefit

The Greenlining Institute works for racial and economic justice, helping under-represented communities to be included in important legislation being passed in California.

“We’re in this period of really great transition and the question, the big picture that we all need to be tackling is, ‘Is this transition going to be just?’” said Joel Espino, who is part of the environmental equity legal counsel for Greenlining Institute. “Is it going to be equitable, is it going to be diverse?”

Espino and his colleagues are trying to ensure that communities of color have a voice in the solutions that are being produced. “We want to make sure that they have a seat at the decision making table,” he said.

Daniel Kammen, professor of energy at University of California Berkeley, explained that California is winning the war locally on the environmental front, with more jobs than ever being produced, but that environmental laws didn’t go as deep as they needed to on a social and economic level.

“One example of something which has been very important on the environmental injustice front has been to look at which policies have worked well but have not pushed hard enough into disadvantaged communities,” Kammen said, referring to an ongoing program Cool California, which uses tools to chart where the high emitting areas are.

Including communities who can’t afford their own home, however, is a challenge.

“A lot of the efforts now are [to] make programs that work well if you’re a homeowner, available to apartment dwellers and those that don’t own,” said Kammen. “And that is a direct play to how do we make this more socially and racially just.”

The Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Program is another attempt at giving homeowners the chance to invest in solar, but Kammen sees inequality in that as well, because of the inherent wealth gap between those who rent and those who own.

Joshua Arce, who is running for District 9 Supervisor in San Francisco, began working with his godmother Espanola Jackson, the late longtime civil rights and community leader in Bayview-Hunters Point, on the Brightline Defense Project in 2009.

Working on issues surrounding housing discrimination, environmental issues and equal access to jobs for workers of color and women, the Brightline Defense Project serves those who would otherwise not have the voice to impact such decision-making.

“I got involved with her [Jackson] 10 years ago in an effort to stop the city from building dirty power plants in her neighborhood,” Arce said.

Jackson and Arce helped close the Hunters Point Power Plant in 2006, and worked with environmentalists, community members, and solar leaders, such as Cotter from Luminalt. Arce also worked on GoSolarSF.

Arce called GoSolarSF environmental justice, because the incentives increase progressively for communities that have “historically born a higher share of the city’s pollution than other neighborhoods.”

Many communities however, even with incentive programs still cannot afford to invest in solar.

Yet GoSolarSF, The PACE Program, The Greenlining Institute, Luminalt Solar, Brightline Defense Project and others are attempting to remind the community that without incorporating legal protection for its most vulnerable people, the movement towards clean energy—and in particular solar—cannot be just.