Photo depicting workers installing solar panels atop the roof of an apartment complex.

OPINION: State Considers Clean Energy Equity Program

by Beth Doglio and Ben Silesky

Washington’s solar industry is booming. The end of 2021 saw a record number of residential, commercial, and utility-scale solar projects installed, in part due to the solar investment programs designed by the state of Washington in 2005 and again in 2017. Homeowners and building owners who install solar see their electricity costs plummet and enjoy the clean energy the sun provides to keep their homes and workspaces warm and comfy while simultaneously reducing their reliance on the fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. Unfortunately, solar still remains out of reach for millions of Washingtonians due to upfront costs, unsuitable roofs, and tree cover. Furthermore, about half the people in the state rent their homes. 

For too long, these barriers have prevented most people from accessing the financial savings solar energy can provide, especially renters and low-income households who were unable to take advantage of the previous two rounds of State incentives. One solution is community solar, allowing multiple community members to access energy from a single solar array.

There’s an opportunity during this legislative session to improve this type of solar access by investing in communities who stand to benefit the most from having their energy burden relieved. Rep. Sharon Shewmake has introduced a legislative proposal to fund community solar projects that benefit low-income Washingtonians, House Bill 1814, which is scheduled for a floor vote in the House of Representatives sometime next week. HB 1814 would create a solar incentive program of $100 million to fund the upfront costs of solar development on rooftops and brownfield sites for low-income households. Necessities like energy costs are increasingly putting more pressure on already strained families; this program is a perfect example of how we can leverage clean energy to provide long-term economic relief to the Washington communities most burdened by energy bills. 

Olympia Community Solar, a nonprofit company directed by this article’s coauthor Ben Silesky, is supporting the proposal. It recently funded two commercial solar installations in Olympia on low-income housing projects called Merritt Manor and Quixote Village. The installations are funded by foundation and government grants, and the arrays produce energy to offset the cost of the low-income households’ electricity. The Merritt Manor solar array will save residents a total of $20,500 annually (about $250 per apartment), and the Quixote Village savings will total approximately $7,800 per year ($260 per resident). This transformative energy access could be expanded with State funding. “Demand for solar grants far outpaces opportunities,” said Olympia Community Solar President Mason Rolph. “The State should dedicate funding to leverage solar as a vehicle for equity.”

Advocates for the bill are calling on legislators to continue to reduce barriers that low-income communities may face in accessing the benefits of solar so this renewable energy can be made more available to those who need it most.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Beth Doglio, a former State representative, brought her 13 years of experience working on clean energy policy at Climate Solutions to the legislature, where she helped lead the passage of groundbreaking legislation in the fight against climate change. She currently serves as a consultant, primarily on housing and climate issues.

Ben Silesky is a clean energy campaign organizer and program director for Olympia Community Solar. He has over eight years of experience at the intersection of climate policy and grassroots organizing with Carbon Washington, Clean & Prosperous America, and Audubon Washington, where he mobilized volunteers from across the state to help pass the Clean Energy Transformation Act.

📸 Featured Image: Solar system installation at the Merritt Manor low-income apartment complex in Lacey, Washington. Photo courtesy of Olympia Community Solar.

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