What It's Really All About: Solar For The 99%

Volunteers from SunPower install panel on a Palmdale rooftop | Photo: GRID Alternatives

Though rooftop solar is starting to make inroads into California's less-affluent communities, most of the state's millions of low- and moderate-income residents still have to pay their utility bills without much help from the sun. But a non-profit solar installer is trying to change that a little bit at a time. Last week, that "little bit" was two struggling households in Palmdale.

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The nonprofit GRID Alternatives, based in Oakland, works to bring rooftop solar to economically disadvantaged communities throughout California. On May 16, the group installed rooftop systems for two families in the desert community of Palmdale who had been faced with some difficult choices this summer: pay increasingly expensive utility bills, or contend with the desert's increasing summer heat. Now, with help from GRID Alternatives, a team of students from the University of Antelope Valley, and the firm SunPower, which donated labor and solar panels, Palmdale residents Benjamin and Cynthia Leh and Marsha Furman will have things a little bit easier heading into summer.

According to one city official in Palmdale, residents will be paying much more to keep cool this summer, and that's a problem. "Recently, Southern California Edison announced that they may have another rate increase starting in June, increasing rates a total of 13.9 percent in comparison to where they were in October," said Ben Lucha, an administrative analyst for the city, who points out that rooftop solar can make a real improvement in his neighbors' quality of life. "This type of relief, which during the summer can make the difference between trying to [endure] the heat or turning on their cooling systems in their homes."

The Lehs and Ms. Furman are like a lot of older Americans: contending with decreased income and related hardship. Confined to a wheelchair following a stroke, Benjamin Leh is cared for full-time by his spouse Cynthia. Their neighbor Marsha Furman is a semi-retired widow living on a fixed income. In other words, they're in the same boat as an increasing number of their fellow Californians, and they have a lot of other things pressing on their monthly budgets in addition to mounting utility bills.

According to Palmdale city officials, the new solar arrays on the Leh and Furman residences will cut those homes' utility bills by around 90 percent, freeing up a bit of cash to spend on other necessities. "This program makes a difference for the families and households that need relief the most and otherwise would not have the means to participate in alternative resources, low and moderate-income households," said Palmdale Housing Coordinator Terri-Lei Wheeler. "Instead of paying higher and higher utility bills, households can direct their limited finances to medical, food, clothing, and other vital health and safety needs."

As we've reported here before, Californians on the bottom end of the economic ladder are the most vulnerable to dislocation by climate change than the state's more affluent communities. That includes direct vulnerability to increased heat. It's typically the poor, the elderly, and the disabled who succumb to heat waves through dehydration, hyperthermia, and lack of social support networks.

We can't fix economic inequality with solar panels, but we can use them to help ameliorate the worst effects of that inequality. GRID Alternatives is doing good work in that regard, installing about 8.5 megawatts worth of solar for 3,000 struggling families. The group estimates it's saved those families $80 million in utility costs. That's $80 million those families can spend on other necessities. What's more, he group estimates it's provided training to 11,000 solar installers, and kept 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

We write a lot about fairly abstract concepts here at ReWire. Everything from arcane partisan politics to quantum mechanics to the workings of our Byzantine power grid comes up for discussion here. But the heart of the burgeoning renewable energy revolution, the really important stuff, is stories like this. Thanks to new rooftop solar panels, and to the good work of GRID Alternatives, two households in Palmdale will have things a little easier than they did, and they're lightening their burden on the planet besides.

And that's what it's all about.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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