BY: DANIEL KORN
California is, by a wide margin, the best state in the US for solar energy. Over a million homes in the state have solar panels installed—compared to the second-best state, Nevada, which only has about 50 thousand solar-powered homes—and the famously-progressive state has many incentives for using solar power in place for businesses and homeowners, including rebates and tax breaks.
Despite this, rooftop solar panels still cost about $15,000 USD or more to install, so the majority of solar energy goes to the upper-middle class and the supremely wealthy. This is unfortunate, because it means that the low-income households who have the most trouble paying their energy bills—and are the ones who need the technology most desperately—are also the ones to whom it is least accessible. A new program by the solar technology non-profit GRID Alternatives is a step towards solving this problem.
The initiative will install 1,600 solar panels on low-income houses by the end of 2016 for free, using funds raised from the cap-and-trade system that took effect in 2012. This system places a limit on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that companies are allowed to produce every year, with the acceptable limit shrinking annually. The state of California then sells “emission credits” at quarterly auctions, which can then be traded between companies. California takes most of the money raised, but a state law decrees that 10 percent of it has to go to projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions or improve disadvantaged communities. Hence the solar panels, which cover both bases—low-income homeowners with the panels installed will save $400 to $1,000 a year, based in what area they live in.
Unfortunately, it’s not a permanent solution. Right now GRID is depending on in-training installers and donated equipment from solar companies to make the program happen—but it’s a really good use of a taxation system that keeps companies accountable for their environmental costs and helps quell the growing epidemic of income inequality.