One of the things that often gets left out of any discussion about zero emissions electricity is the effect it will have on low income communities. Those are the places that are most likely to have drafty windows, insufficient insulation, out of date heating and cooling systems, and doors that don’t close tightly. Some of them still have a 40 amp fuse box down in the basement instead of a breaker panel. Sol Systems and Google are joining up to create a program that will make more renewable energy available to those communities.
But first, Sol Systems and Google intend to address some of those structural issues on the theory that it’s a waste of good renewable energy to use it to power heat pumps or more efficient appliances if a home is not energy efficient in the first place. Together they have structured an integrated clean energy investment and procurement strategy for solar projects that is being developed by Pine Gate Renewables in North and South Carolina.
Their strategy provides capital to enable 225 MWdc of new solar energy projects and 18 MW of battery storage resources. This utility-scale solar power will supply Google with renewable energy credits in a part of the country where relatively little zero emissions electricity is available, which in turn will advance Google’s goal of procuring around the clock clean energy for its data centers and nudging down carbon emissions in those states.
Sol Systems Partners With Google
Corporations have become the biggest driver of new clean energy projects in the US. But as Adaora Ifebigh of Sol Systems told Canary Media in an interview this week, adding clean power to the grid is most helpful when paired with energy efficiency improvements for the customers using that clean power.
“Energy efficiency is the low hanging fruit that really sets people up for the benefits” of lower-cost solar power, she said. Significant efficiency retrofits can cut energy usage carbon emissions in many homes in half, especially in older homes that have deferred maintenance needs. Those savings are particularly helpful for lower income residents who spend a disproportionate amount of their monthly income on energy bills.
The problem, she said, is that many of the people who could benefit most from those savings can’t participate in traditional energy efficiency assistance programs because their homes have other problems that need to be fixed before efficiency upgrades can be made. Those can include leaky roofs, damaged floors, excessive moisture buildup, mold, faulty electrical wiring, and other circumstances that can render homes ineligible to receive federal weatherization assistance. “About 20 percent of families cannot participate in weatherization due to insufficient home repairs,” Ifebigh said. Solar power is a good thing, but if “homes are not safe and efficient, that’s power going down the drain.”
Solar & Social Justice
In addition to their support of renewable energy in the Carolinas, Google and Sol Systems are investing in regional community organizations that serve under-resourced and minority communities. Four regional organizations will receive initial funding from the partnership — Roanoke Electric Cooperative, Santee Electric Cooperative, Aiken Electric Cooperative, and the Sustainability Institute of South Carolina.
“We are honored to be working with Google, a pioneer in renewable energy procurement and community investment,” said Sol Systems’ CEO Yuri Horwitz. “As they have in the past, they continue to provide leadership and innovation for our industry. We look forward to building on this work in the future.”
“By 2030, we’re aiming for every Google data center to operate on clean energy every hour of every day. As we work toward this goal, we are committed to ensuring that the communities where we operate are actively benefiting from the clean energy transition,” said Christopher Scott, the leader for energy usage at Google. “We’re excited to partner with Sol Systems to not only bring new solar projects online to one of the most difficult grids to decarbonize but also work with them to help lower the energy burden in under-resourced communities through the clean energy transition.”
Bryan Cordell, executive director of the Sustainability Institute of South Carolina, agrees that the lack of funding for these kinds of “pre-weatherization” repairs is a barrier to his organization’s efficiency efforts. The group offers efficiency upgrade grants and services to help low-income households in the coastal Low Country region it serves, many of them facing a “persistent energy burden problem,” he said.
“We’re in a hot, humid environment, we’re running air conditioners constantly during the summer, and we have a lot of older building stock,” with most homes at least four decades old. “A lot of these homes have structural problems — leaky roof; floors or walls that need to be repaired; plumbing problems.”
Funding for pre-weatherization home repairs is tight in the Low Country region, which means only about 100 homes per year can get assistance compared to the thousands that need it. “There were so many homes we were having to walk away from, knowing there were so many things that needed to be fixed.”
Ifebigh formerly served as senior manager of research and development engagements for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. She notes that energy burdens are higher in rural areas served by cooperatives compared to the national average. Cooperatives serve 92% of the country’s “persistent poverty” counties, defined as counties where poverty rates have been above 20% for at least 30 years. As member owned entities, co-ops are better positioned than outside organizations to determine how best to spend money like the investment that Sol Systems and Google are bringing to the table, she adds.
Gaining Public Trust
Cordell points out that many of the communities the Sustainability Institute serves are leery of government promises of aid. “It only takes a couple of conversations with community-based partners to understand that, in these communities, a lot of things are promised and few are delivered, historically,” he says.
Andrew Williams, Sol Systems’ vice president of policy and corporate affairs, highlighted the importance of earning community buy-in to make the most of the locally focused impact investments that are becoming a more important part of many corporate clean-energy deals. “We as solar developers do not know what is best for a community we’re developing solar in or will invest in. Anyone can write grants. But it’s very different when you’re working with a community that can identify their key issues.”
Dawn Lippert, CEO of Elemental Excelerator in Hawaii, agrees that community investment, when made as part of a broader commitment from companies to engage with and learn from the communities they’re investing in, “creates better projects that are more resilient in the face of supply chain disruption, more likely to attract workers, and more likely to be welcomed by the communities in which they’re located.”
This week’s announcement with Google is the second community impact investment for Sol Systems, which is operating and building more than 1.5 gigawatts of solar projects in the US. In 2021, it signed a deal with Microsoft to invest at least $50 million in community organizations as part of an agreement to finance, develop, and operate a 500 megawatt portfolio of solar projects for the software company. Funding recipients to date include nonprofits Grid Alternatives, Groundswell, and Appalachian Voices.
We write about renewable energy a lot at CleanTechnica, enough that we understand how there is a lack of community development that goes along with making it happen. Farmers in western New York don’t care a flying fig leaf about solar or wind farms that send all their output through high voltage transmission lines to a distant city. Perhaps if developers spent more time designing systems that would directly benefit the people in the communities where the electricity is made, there would be less antagonism to renewables in rural areas.
Community engagement that focuses on social justice — don’t dare say anything about that in Florida! — would also help reduce the NIMBY pushback from those communities. All politics is local, Tip O’Neill always said. It might be a good time to dust off his advice and put it to good use again.
I don’t like paywalls. You don’t like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it! We just don’t like paywalls, and so we’ve decided to ditch ours.
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