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Beyond oil: How solar power use could explode

Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell and a movement-builder for clean energy and communities
Joe Raedle | Getty Images. Solar power just hit the 1 million installation milestone. Here's how the clean energy source gets to the next million mark, says Michelle Moore.

The United States is celebrating a major milestone that has been 40 years in the making: one million solar installations nationwide.

Thanks to the more than 200,000 Americans working in the solar industry, and the innovations that have driven down the cost per watt for residential solar by two-thirds in 20 years, we can look forward to marking the next million solar installations just two years from now.

The solar revolution is well underway and clean energy is abundant, but it has been slow to reach low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Families bringing home $40,000 or less per year make up 40 percent of the U.S. population, but only account for less than 5 percent of rooftop solar installations.

And according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), nearly half of Americans can't use rooftop solar because they don't own their roof, aren't in the right location, or don't have the financial status to qualify for financing programs. As we look ahead to the next million solar installations, how do we give all Americans—regardless of how much money they make—a seat at the table?

Community solar can be the game-changer we need because it will vastly expand access to solar, allowing people to purchase solar energy produced close to home without installing any new equipment. While there are only about 100 community solar installations generating 102 MW of power nationwide today, NREL projects that community solar is on its way to becoming the single largest source of distributed renewable energy in America—outpacing rooftop solar and providing as much as 8 gigawatts of clean power within the next five years, enough to power over five million homes.

A community solar array is built in a location with good sun exposure and access to the power grid. Anyone who pays their own power bill, including renters, can buy subscriptions for a portion of the energy produced by the system, which is credited against their power bill. Because community solar is local, it creates local investment and jobs while strengthening community resilience. In states like Maryland and New York that already have community solar legislation in place, you could power your apartment with affordable clean energy from a solar array down the street that helps employ people in your neighborhood.

Community solar can be the answer, but today, the dominant models for project development have many of the same barriers to access as rooftop solar, including high credit score requirements, upfront costs, and long-term contracts contracts. You can either purchase a share of a community solar array outright, which requires payment up-front, or you can sign a long-term power purchase agreement and subscribe, which typically requires a minimum 650 credit score. Either way, you're left out if you don't have cash or good credit. Here's why that matters: low income households already pay a greater percentage of their household income to keep the lights on despite falling energy prices and growing affordable clean energy options. The 20 percent of America that earns the least is paying nearly 10 percent or more of their total household income for electricity. This burden isn't uniformly shared by region or by race.

Nearly half of all households with high-energy burdens are in the South, and half of all families struggling with disproportionately high bills are African-American. In cities like Jacksonville, Baltimore, Miami, Orlando, and Tampa, nearly 10 percent of households living in poverty are paying $200 or more per month for electricity—double the national median household power bills. That's outrageous and it's also a call to action. Clean energy isn't a luxury; it's a necessity. We can't afford the social cost of waiting for the benefits of affordable, clean energy to trickle down to the families who need the savings the most.

Ensuring equal access to community solar requires two things: good public policy and market-focused innovation. The 11 states that have community solar legislation in place provide good models for the rest to follow, as well as initial scale for the marketplace.The necessary market innovation will require shifting our perspective. Instead of viewing community solar as a bigger version of a rooftop array, we need to approach it as a small-scale distributed utility and build inclusive business models accordingly.

The doubling of solar installations in the United States and the rapid emergence of community solar programs means we have an unprecedented opportunity to radically expand access to affordable solar energy. Not only does that mean more subscribers and more megawatts for solar companies, it also demonstrates that solar isn't just for the wealthy, and dirty fuels aren't the only way to deliver low-cost energy to low income families. And that's good for the market. By working together, we can make sure that everyone—regardless of how much money they make—can have a seat at the abundant clean energy table with affordable clean power, solar jobs, and community wealth created by the market's growth.

Commentary by Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell and a movement-builder for clean energy and communities. An experienced social enterprise executive and public sector leader, her accomplishments include spearheading Federal sustainability for the Obama administration and helping to build the global green building movement.

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