Putting the “Community” in Community Solar: How We Build a Just Energy Future for New Jersey and Beyond

Over the next few years, New Jersey will bring the benefits of local solar to up to 30,000 families through the new community solar pilot program. But what does a just energy future look like for New Jersey, and how can local communities lead the way as the new program is implemented?

Pictured: Attendees at New Jersey Workshop – Getting to Equitable Solar Access

Thanks to a hardworking coalition and state lawmakers who passed a pilot program last year, more New Jersey families will have the choice to get their power from the sun by subscribing to community solar — plugging into local solar arrays that can serve whole neighborhoods, schools, faith congregations and more. The community solar program has the potential to save money for families facing high utility bills, cut pollution and improve public health, build resilience against climate impacts, and create local jobs.

We worked with a broad New Jersey coalition to pass legislation that created the pilot program. In order to meet Governor Murphy’s goals on clean energy, the Board of Public Utilities, which oversees the implementation, has so far moved on a fast timeline to open access to the first subscribers by the beginning of 2020. While a quicker timeline helps address the urgency of transitioning to a clean energy future, it also means that established businesses have an advantage compared to our local environmental justice partners who will begin from scratch to benefit from this community solar program. To fully reap the benefits promised by community solar, we need to engage New Jersey communities as leaders and active participants.

To do so, Vote Solar teamed up with equity partners to hold a free workshop in Trenton on August 28 with a passionate and dedicated group of forty advocates and leaders from environmental justice communities, faith communities, conservation organizations, the solar industry and economic development institutions, and more.

Together, we envisioned an equitable clean energy future for all in New Jersey and the next steps to get there. Whatever state and neighborhood you call home, read on for inspiration from the big takeaways of Getting to Equitable Solar Access: A to Z of Planning and Implementation.

We’re grateful to the Energy Foundation for its financial support to make this event happen, and to our other co-sponsors: New Jersey State Conference of NAACP Branches (our gracious host) and United Methodist Women.

Local communities must lead the way

The fossil fuel economy has been extractive of underserved communities. But community-powered community solar can help end the cycle of extraction, and support a new cycle of community regeneration — building wealth, protecting health, and strengthening community democracy as people take charge of their own energy.

As the state continues to establish clean energy policies, both the process of policy making and the actual policy outcomes should be inclusive and demonstrate direct positive impact on low-income and disadvantaged communities.

None of this happens without community engagement and leadership. The heart of truly equitable clean energy policy and implementation is an inclusive process, which leads to an inclusive outcome. Frontline and environmental justice communities face the greatest climate impacts, but community members are often left out of the decision-making process when local clean energy is developed.

Luis Torres, Senior Legislative Representative at Earthjustice, emphasized that the process to build a just energy system is just as important as the end result. Communities must have the power and access to choose how they want to produce their own energy. Policymakers, developers, and organizers must ask: who’s at the table, and what does this process look like and why? Building a movement through strong relationships is far more important and valuable than achieving the next policy goal. And organizations and institutions historically dominated by white voices and perspectives must work to dismantle behaviors from white supremacy culture.

An excellent guiding light for inclusive decision making is the Jemez Principles. Created through the leadership of environmental justice communities and communities of color, these six principles for democratic organizing emphasize working together in solidarity through true commitment to doing the hard work of building just relationships.

And effective community engagement and relationship building calls for meeting people where they already connect to their neighbors — such as through YMCAs, Boys and Girls clubs, established community groups, and faith institutions.

In terms of policy outcomes, new policies and programs should have clear and measurable goals that demonstrate improved quality of life and economic prospects for low-income and disadvantaged communities.

Moreover, policies should be matched with the means to achieve them. Often times, we come across newly created mandates without the means and support for successful implementation.

We are currently working towards how to set New Jersey on a path to a 100% clean energy future. This means that all residents of New Jersey will have access to clean energy, clean transportation, and cleaner air. To achieve this vision will require not only clearly laid out standards and goals to reach low-income and environmental justice communities, but also funding and pathways to address the barriers that exist in these communities.

Just energy means addressing urgent community needs and historic harm

Many people across the U.S., especially people of color, face systemic inequities preventing them from accessing affordable healthcare, childcare, food, and housing, as well as living wage jobs or careers that build financial security and support families. This is especially true for many of New Jersey’s urban communities facing energy poverty. With a high energy burden, they pay a high proportion of income for their utility bills — forcing unbearable choices like choosing between paying for medical care or keeping the lights on.

Equitable clean energy programs must have clear and measurable goals for equitable benefits that lower bills and reduce barriers to access — and that includes current policies along with the new pilot program. Clean energy rebates and incentives have not been designed to benefit enough low-income families, leading to those families paying into clean energy funds but unable to access solar savings and continuing to run on fossil fuels. New Jersey’s energy efficiency programs also fail to serve many families whose homes are in need of weatherization or other improvements before they can qualify for energy efficiency benefits. Expanding these programs to address the infrastructure barriers that exist for low-income households will help access these program offerings and will provide more much-needed relief on energy bills.

All people should have the right to live without pollution and without dependence on dirty energy. But as Luis and other speakers and participants emphasized, we cannot just build community power to design a clean energy future. We must also address and work to mitigate the historical harm from climate impacts, pollution, and intersectional inequities that take away community power.

To address historical harm and build a just clean energy future, environmental justice communities underscore the importance of reducing emissions in environmental justice communities and creating an inclusive framework and process for local community energy planning. Communities need funding to build dedicated capacity for outreach, education, and organizing that will lift community members into leaders as the best ambassadors for how clean energy will make a positive and real impact.

The solar industry must work closely with communities

As noted in the Pilot Program application, developers must demonstrate engagement with community and environmental justice stakeholders prior to the beginning of construction. For New Jersey to truly meet the mandate of 40% carve-out for LMI subscribers, developers must commit to deep community engagement, with practices and offerings that place customers in the center, provide affordable access to low to moderate income families, and develop the local workforce.

We invited members of the solar industry with customer and community-centered models and powerful engagement to share how they’re contributing to a just and equitable transition:

  • Workforce development: Power52 trains underserved job seekers for solar and energy efficiency opportunities and partners with companies to create a hiring pipeline. Their Energy Institute supports trainees as whole people with soft skills for their professional development. GRID Alternatives, the nation’s largest nonprofit solar installer, develops and implements solar projects that serve low-income households and communities. GRID partners with affordable housing organizations, job training groups, government agencies, municipalities, utilities, tribes and local communities to make solar a win for all.
  • Saving money for families: Sunrun, the nation’s largest solar installer, focuses on reducing energy burden for low to moderate income families, empowering people to reduce energy expenses for their own home and become equal partners in building a better grid. Posigen is designing energy efficiency programs in combination with solar that have helped Connecticut families save an average of $700 in their first year — with 100% of the upfront costs covered.
  • Engaging communities: Solstice is solving the disconnect between developers and customers by acting as the matchmaker through building deep community relationships that lead to customer-centered projects, and building a new model for solar financing that expands access to more of the 50% of Americans who are left out due to credit scores.

Applications for developers are due on September 9 to participate in the first round of the program. At Vote Solar, we’re committed to working with community leaders to educate and inform them on ways they can benefit from community solar and help them develop a well thought-out community solar project. Learn more about how the BPU will evaluate applications.

New Jersey isn’t starting from scratch

While community solar is new to New Jersey, 20 states and the District of Columbia have community solar programs right now, and there are many effective programs for best practices, such as Minnesota’s Community Solar Program. Advocates in New Jersey and other states on the road to solar for all can also learn from local communities across the U.S. who have led the way on clean energy innovation. Here are some groundbreaking examples we shared:

New York passed the nation’s most transformative climate bill yet with the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which not only sets the Empire State on a path to 100% renewable energy, but also establishes critical funding and expands community engagement for underserved and environmental justice communities. NY Renews brought together over 180 organizations in a community-led movement that powered this victory through four years of tireless action. Vote Solar was proud to support NY Renews, and contribute to ensure that the bill included a near-term goal which will grow enough solar to power one million households with solar by 2025.

In Portland, local organizers and leaders from communities of color came together to pass a ballot measure with 65% of the vote to establish a Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund. The Fund provides support for green infrastructure projects, clean energy expansion, and job training programs to build power and resilience for frontline communities as the city transitions to 100% renewable energy. Communities will guide the management and distribution through a committee that reflects the racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of Portland.

Another inspiring example is the new Environmental & Social Justice Action Plan from the California Public Utilities Commission. Created as a living document through an open process, the ESJ Plan provides a roadmap to include members of environmental and social justice communities in commission proceedings, and ensure that investments in clean energy and related resources benefit all communities.

Learn more about community solar across the U.S. with program highlights in our Community Solar Vision Study.

What’s next?

As the three-year community solar pilot program gets underway, Vote Solar is working with local partners for a resilient and equitable New Jersey where communities, policymakers, and the solar industry work together to grow solar for all.

Are you passionate about building a bright clean energy future in New Jersey with solar for all? Do you want your community to have a voice in building an equitable community solar program that will benefit you and your neighbors? Please reach out to Pari Kasotia at pari@votesolar.org. We welcome your engagement and leadership.

True community solar is led and powered by communities. Vote Solar is developing a roadmap for Community Powered Community solar — a guiding pathway on how communities can lead the way. We invited feedback at this workshop and encourage you to reach out to Melanie Mosier-Santiago, Senior Director of Access & Equity at melanie@votesolar.org if we can engage you in building a better roadmap.

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Here’s a selection of resources to build your expertise and support you in working for a just and equitable energy system:

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