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Solar benefits all Americans

The solar industry is helping America move “full speed ahead” toward a cleaner, more distributed energy system. That much, Monica Martinez got correct in her Nov. 2 op-ed in The T&D. However, we could not disagree more with her assertion that solar’s growth comes “at the expense of the poor.” Solar benefits all Americans, of all income levels.

The solar industry is focused on ensuring that all communities are full participants in the solar revolution. As with any new technology, like cell phones, early adopters of solar tended to have higher incomes, and there has been evidence of what some have called a “green divide.”

But as solar prices have plummeted by more than 50 percent over the last decade, we’ve seen communities across the income spectrum taking advantage of solar’s increased affordability. In some of the most established solar markets in the country, multiple reports outline how rooftop solar systems are overwhelmingly adopted in middle-class neighborhoods with median incomes ranging from $40,000 to $90,000. In many states, income residents below this threshold pay reduced electric rates based on need, reducing their potential to save money by going solar.

However, the industry is extending a helping hand in many other ways. The solar industry remains committed to being the most diverse sector of the U.S. energy industry, and is well on its way to achieving that goal. Today, solar is one of America’s fastest-growing industries – with more than 30 percent of its workforce made up of minorities and 10 percent veterans of the U.S. armed services. Additionally, SEIA and its member companies have committed to hiring a total of 50,000 veterans by 2020. Hands-on solar job training is currently available through the RISE program pioneered by Grid Alternatives and SunEdison.

The environmental, economic and other benefits solar provides accrue to entire communities, not just the residents and businesses putting panels on their roofs. When customers go solar, utilities spend less. Utilities avoid short-term costs of purchasing expensive peak power from other sources. Customer-sited solar generation also enables utilities to spend less money in the long term, since they will need to build less transmission and distribution infrastructure in the future. When utilities spend less, customers save.

Thus, though sometimes mischaracterized as a “subsidy,” the net metering policies under which most rooftop solar customers are billed is simply a compensation mechanism that recognizes that clean energy — produced near the site where it’s consumed and primarily during expensive peak hours — is more valuable than generic “brown” power.

 In fact, when care is taken to do the math correctly, it’s clear that in most states, the benefits produced by clean, local, solar generation meet or exceed the costs. To put it another way, solar customers do pay their fair share of grid costs and, utility claims to the contrary, non-solar customers are not disadvantaged when their neighbors go solar. The solar industry has actually agreed in several cases to the application of “minimum bills” for all customers, to ensure that all customers contribute to grid costs all year long.

And for customers who haven’t been able to go solar themselves, the industry is continuing to innovate. Solar leasing programs – comparable to auto leasing – broaden access to solar by reducing, or eliminating, the up-front costs of installing solar. Community solar projects are also expanding access and affordability. Customers with shaded roofs, apartment dwellers, lower income customers, those with poor credit, and others, can subscribe to a “slice” of a community solar project, and get a credit off of their bill. And statewide low-income solar initiatives have been established in California, Colorado, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Solar is for everyone. And in order for all energy users to have, as Martinez says, “their day in the sun,” states need to maintain smart public policies, like net metering.