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Unlocking Clean Energy in Low-Income Communities

They're disproportionately harmed by fossil fuels, and they need the jobs this growing industry provides. Some states are showing the way.

In 1882, Thomas Edison began operating the Pearl Street Power Station in New York City, the nation's first electric-power plant. At the time, it was cutting-edge. But in the 135 years since, the marvel that was the Pearl Street facility and the ensuing build-out of fossil-fuel-burning power plants have taken a toll on human health and the environment.

Over that time, generating electricity with fossil fuels has had a disproportionate impact on the health and well-being of low-income communities, particularly communities of color and indigenous communities. Low-income communities are far more likely to be exposed to pollution such as arsenic, asbestos, lead and mercury, leading to health problems including higher rates of asthma, cancer, and heart and lung disease.

But now, in recognition of the human consequences of a fossil-based electricity system and the economic opportunities of innovation, some states are beginning to correct course by investing more in clean energy. In many places, local leaders are also committed to extending its benefits to low-income communities. With tools such as the Low-Income Solar Policy Guide and toolkit developed by Vote Solar, GRID Alternatives and the Center for Social Inclusion, and by drawing from successful existing models, state leaders can craft programs that start to remedy 135 years of energy inequity.

The path forward is being paved today. Colorado and Illinois are among the states that are finding innovative ways to overcome the barriers that face low-income families in being able to access clean-energy resources like solar. In California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and elsewhere, stakeholders are pioneering ways to leverage public dollars to garner significant private-sector investments. And more exciting developments are on the way.

The promise of solar energy is one of lower and stabilized utility bills, investing in local economies, and building healthier communities by replacing fossil fuels with cleaner alternatives. There are real success stories for states to build upon, but there are multiple challenges that must be overcome to deliver on that promise for low-income communities.

To begin with, low-income families are particularly cost-sensitive and need energy-bill savings up front. These families generally have a harder time accessing financing options, which has been a primary driver of solar growth for less-cost-sensitive customers. Low-income families also may experience greater physical barriers to accessing solar because they rent or live in homes that are not conducive to solar installations. And experience has shown that marketing solar to low-income families comes with challenges such as cultural and language differences, as well as understandable skepticism when presented with solar opportunities that may seem too good to be true.

But from California to Connecticut, states are moving toward clean-energy solutions that provide near- and long-term financial relief to families struggling with high electricity bills. California's successful solar program for low-income single-family homes, for example has reduced the energy burden for more than 7,000 low-income families and provided job training to more than 6,800 people. California's multifamily affordable-housing solar program has benefited more than 6,500 low-income households, saving some families hundreds of dollars a year.

Connecticut's groundbreaking Green Bank has leveraged private investment for nearly 5,000 solar installations serving the homes of low-income families. And in Massachusetts, the Mass Solar Loan program has provided financial support for nearly 3,000 solar installations, 40 percent of which were for low-income households.

Those accomplishments are in addition to the economic benefits of a growing solar workforce. Last year the solar industry grew 20 times faster than the rest of the economy, employing more people in the United States than the coal, oil and natural-gas extraction sectors combined. The most recent job census from the Solar Foundation tallied more than 260,000 workers across all sectors of the solar economy, including sales, manufacturing, installation, R&D and finance.

In just over a century since Thomas Edison first flipped the switch, solar and other forms of clean energy are proving to be a pathway to good-paying jobs. And with this new energy economy comes the promise of replacing fossil-fuel plants that have long contributed to the toxic air and water that nearby communities breathe and drink. We ask leaders in every state capital to join us in taking Edison's vision to the next level: a clean-energy economy delivering jobs, utility-bill savings and a healthier environment for the families that need it most.

Program director for low-income solar access for Vote Solar
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