Washington initiative promotes low-income solar installations

How can solar energy job training in low-income communities help strengthen the clean energy economy? During today's OnPoint, Greg Dotson, vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress, and Erica Mackie, co-founder and CEO at GRID Alternatives, discuss a new program launched in Washington, D.C., focused on expanding solar installations and job training to low-income communities. They address the policies that could expand the program to the mainstream and explain the benefits of solar energy to rural and low-income communities.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today are Greg Dotson, vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress, and Erica Mackie, co-founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives. Thank you both for joining me.

Erica Mackie: Thanks for having us.

Greg Dotson: Thanks for having us.

Monica Trauzzi: Erica, GRID Alternatives is the country's largest solar nonprofit, and you've just expanded your work to include the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. You've had successful programs in other regions of the country. Why did you select the Mid-Atlantic, and what are some of the opportunities that are available in this region?

Erica Mackie: Well, you know, GRID Alternatives installs solar electric systems exclusively for low-income families and trains workers to join the growing industry and, you know, right here in D.C., there's been tremendous need and we're working with a job training organization that's, you know, coming out and getting their guys and gals up on a rooftop to get hands-on experience, but it's also a tremendous opportunity to showcase our work for the nation. We think that we have a model that can work throughout the country and can really include all of our communities and lift up all of our communities to join the growing solar industry.

Monica Trauzzi: And, Greg, I know CAP is doing some research on this. Why is solar an important tool for both rural and low-income communities?

Greg Dotson: Well, if you look at what's happening currently in the electric sector, we're undergoing an amazing and historic transformation. For years, people have talked about solar energy as a promise for the future, and that promise is now becoming a reality, but it's not going to reach, we need it to become a reality because we, it's part of a pragmatic solution to the threat of climate change, but it's not going to go to the scale that we need it to unless really all households can participate, regardless of their income level.

Monica Trauzzi: Erica, you mentioned the job training aspect. Before the show, you were giving me some anecdotes on last week's presentation of this project. Talk about that and how you're helping to broaden solar installation opportunities.

Erica Mackie: Right, well the industry has been growing over the last several years and, you know, it's grown 20 percent a year for the last many years, and the biggest barrier to scaling the industry is having a trained talent pool of workers, you know, in all of our communities that can get those jobs, and so we're working with an organization on the ground here in D.C. called Sasha Bruce that's bringing out young people who are going through a job training program, and they need to be able to get out of the classroom and out of the lab and get that real hands-on experience.

Monica Trauzzi: And where does your funding come from?

Erica Mackie: So in many ways, the way solar adoption has been happening throughout the country, and particularly in the space to, you know, really ensure equal access to solar power, it's been led by cities and states. I'm sure that Greg can talk more about that. And so what we do is really bring together both the public sector, the private sector and, you know, our nonprofit model to really make sure that solar happens. So there is, you know, often state funding or city funding along with private industry support in a nonprofit business model.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you want to jump in?

Greg Dotson: I would just say, on your first point, question about jobs, it sort of snuck up on people that there are now more than 140,000 people employed in the solar energy industry. That's more than are involved in coal or petroleum manufacturing jobs, so that's a real significant change and it shows that this is a field that's growing dramatically, almost exponentially. With regard to financing, there's a, you know, we have a forthcoming report in which we look at what kind of financing options have been adopted by the states. In California, we see a small charge on distribution of electricity, but that small charge equals a huge investment for the state, and in other parts of the country, you know, we've seen creative financing down in Louisiana, where essentially they combine state and federal tax credits and they say, well, since these are really going to be deployed in low-income communities, what kind of preferential lending for community development is there? And by using that kind of approach, they're able to expand solar energy in ways that I don't think people have really thought of before.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. So, Erica, how do programs like this one help the U.S. reach the Obama administration's goals for expanding renewable energy, doubling renewable energy generation by 2020? What are the specific numbers that you're looking at?

Erica Mackie: Well, for us, you know, it's being part of the entire piece of the pie, right, that there are a lot of rooftops out there that are, you know, multifamily rental units with low-income folks, and there are about 22 million low-income single-family homeowners across the country. So this represents an enormous opportunity, both for our country to really grow solar in a way that ensures long-term savings for families that are struggling to make ends meet and, you know, pay their utility costs, but also an enormous opportunity to employ workers across the country.

Monica Trauzzi: Greg, is there an opportunity here to take the lessons learned and make a program like this more mainstream?

Greg Dotson: I think we are seeing some of that from the current administration where you see investments in job development, job training, research. All of this is creating, I believe, over time, a self-standing industry that won't need these additional support factors, but you know, coal has been around for a couple hundred years, oil's been around for a hundred years, the price of a photovoltaic solar panel has come down 99 percent in the last 35 years, almost 60 percent just since 2011, so we're on our way there. We're very close to grid parity and probably in many parts of the country, we already have it.

Erica Mackie: I think what happens, you know, as these policies sort of go across the country is that you can have a policy that grows the industry, but without sort of really smart policy that thinks about low-income families, you're going to grow an industry that leaves our most vulnerable populations behind, and so thinking about how do you maximize savings for families? How do you do it in a way that trains up workers? How do you look at consumer protection? And really sort of taking, as we're going forward as a nation and saying, OK, let's ask those questions as a country and how are we going to create a national low-income solar policy that does that and make sure that, as we grow and transition to clean power, we include everyone?

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Very interesting. Very interesting program. Thank you both for coming on the show.

Greg Dotson: Thanks so much for having us.

Greg Dotson: Thanks for having us.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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