How California is bringing solar energy to low-income renters

An array on an infamous down-and-out building makes solar more equitable.

 

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California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West. 

In central Los Angeles, just a couple of blocks from the intersection of two major freeways, an almost century-old, three-story brick apartment building stands. Known as the Alegria — Spanish for “joy” — it is one of the few affordable residential buildings in this industrial but increasingly coveted neighborhood, due to its proximity to the University of Southern California campus and downtown LA. Rent is set at 30 percent of a minimum-wage worker’s salary (around $12 to $15 per hour), and Section 8 vouchers are still accepted.

Twenty years ago, the Alegria Apartments were so infested by mice and cockroaches that only five units were occupied. Across the street, less than 50 feet from the building’s entrance, an active oil-drilling operation exposed residents to health threats ranging from respiratory problems to cancer. According to a 2014 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, there are an estimated 5,000 active oil and gas wells in Los Angeles County. More than half a million people, a majority of them people of color, live within 1,320 feet of an oil or gas well.

In 2004, the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, a community development nonprofit, bought the building and began to restore it. Now, the Alegria has gone solar, thanks to a partnership with Grid Alternatives, whose mission is to increase access to renewable energy technology and job training. This is the first initiative of its kind to bring free solar energy to low-income renters directly impacted by fossil fuel extraction. The solar energy will by no means offset all the hardships involved in living next to an urban oil well. But it’s a hopeful sign of what’s possible in the future, with California leading the way to environmental justice by making cleaner energy accessible to all, regardless of class.

New solar panels on the Alegria Apartments will provide residents with cleaner energy and save more than $9,000 annually.
Courtesy of GRID Alternatives

“Part of what made this the right choice was Alegria’s fight against the polluting AllenCo Energy oil well facility across the street,” Michael Kadish, executive director of Grid Alternatives in Greater Los Angeles, who envisioned the collaboration, told me. “It was evident that this project could draw a stark contrast between old dirty energy extraction that harms community members and the new clean energy future that we are working to make as inclusive as possible.”

The Alegria received a 34.5-kW DC solar photovoltaic system, a medium-sized system that will deliver an estimated $9,000 in savings annually to the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation. It’s an approach that seems ideal for the area: Southern California has sunshine, an endless sea of rooftops — and a clean energy policy that’s becoming a model for other states.

California recently passed a landmark rule that requires every new single-family home to have solar panels, starting in 2020. This will translate to an extra $10,000 fee for new homeowners, who, on average, pay $674,600 for a home in LA. There will be clear long-term benefits for them and for the state’s electric grid, and carbon emissions will be lowered overall. But what about the middle- and working-class people, who are barely able to afford living in a city like Los Angeles? How will they gain?

According to Grid Alternatives’ data, low-income households, or those earning annual incomes less than 80 percent of area median income, account for less than 1 percent of LA County’s residential solar capacity. Yet they typically spend a higher percentage of their income on energy costs, so they stand to benefit the most from utility bill savings.

Residents and community members gather in May to flip the switch for Alegria Apartment's new solar system.
Courtesy of GRID Alternatives

Thanks to Obama-era executive actions and private-sector commitments, low-income multifamily buildings can now get fully subsidized arrays, like the one the Alegria has installed. But in order for those to translate to savings for tenants rather than landlords, Los Angeles County would need to adopt an existing state policy known as virtual net metering — a system that allows people to share solar energy among tenants and receive credits on their electric bills for any excess energy they produce. 

“In the future, we hope that virtual net metering will mean that financial benefits can flow directly to affordable housing residents to provide greater equity in California,” said Kadish, who is part of a coalition of clean energy and housing advocates pushing for strategies and programs to assist low-income energy customers. Currently, renters make up about half of the LA Department of Water and Power’s customers. But without a utility policy like virtual net metering, they cannot share a single solar system or qualify for rebates.

This is where the Alegria comes in: Its new solar array is little more than a symbolic gesture, assisting a mere 15 families, but it demonstrates that sustainable energy can and should be accessible and affordable for all. Those 15 families represent a small fraction of the many low-income people who live in one of the most expensive and sprawling urban regions in the country. In full view of the kind of fossil fuel energy they hope to make obsolete, they are pioneering a future that includes virtual net metering and more equitable energy planning. In this way, they’re blazing a path for the years to come.

“We continue to fight, because until we can dismantle oil wells — like the one across the street from us — we won’t truly have a good quality of life,” said Victoria, an Alegria resident, at the “flip the switch” ceremony last month. “But solar panels are giving us a big help.”

Note: This article has been updated to clarify that it is low-income multifamily buildings, not tenants, that can receive subsidized arrays. In addition, it is Los Angeles County, not California, that would need to adopt virtual net metering, as it is already a state policy.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California.

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