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LEWIS/MOORE: Solar, Powered by the People

WASHINGTON INFORMER — Solar power is abundant, affordable, and accessible in the District of Columbia

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By Kimberly Lewis and Michelle Moore

Solar power is abundant, affordable, and accessible in the District of Columbia. Every single solar panel that is installed with the projected $300 million that will go to build solar projects in our nation’s capital over the next five years will cut utility bills, create jobs, and build wealth – but for whom? There are only three certified minority and woman-owned solar businesses operating in D.C. The problem with our new green economy is that it’s propagating the same old inequities instead of reflecting the beautiful diversity of the places we live. That’s why we’re celebrating Black History Month by calling for a new chapter in the story of the solar industry in America, starting right here in Washington, D.C.

We see the disparities first hand as part of the leadership team of Groundswell, a D.C.-based nonprofit that builds community power. When we issued our first RFP for a community solar project, there were few to no minority or woman-owned solar businesses and hardly any woman or people of color on the leadership teams of the companies that responded. We wanted to know why and what we could do about it, so we reached out to NYMBUS Holdings, a local minority-owned research firm, for answers.  Their new report is a wake-up call that includes immediate and measurable steps we can take together to close the gap and make sure that solar is delivering on the promise of being power to, for, and by the people.

It’s the right thing to do. The District of Columbia is a richly diverse community that is blessed with some of the most progressive solar energy policies in the country. Not only is our city committed to using 100% clean energy, we have the nation’s biggest solar incentives and a Solar for All program that delivers free solar power to our low-income neighbors who are struggling to pay utility bills. The policies that make D.C. a great place for solar are enabled by the people of Washington, D.C. Our thriving local solar industry should look like Washington, D.C., too.

We’re not alone. These same inequities are tragically common themes at every level within the green movement. A new report about diversity in the environmental field by Green 2.0 shows that it is still predominantly male and increasingly white. The solar sector is no exception. Nationally, fewer than 30% of the people working in the solar industry are female. But when you look at who pays the most for energy, more than half of families paying disproportionately high electricity bills across the United States are African American. It’s not fair.

We’ve got to do better. The growth of the solar industry generates more than clean power – it creates jobs and builds wealth. It holds the promise of lifting more lives beyond financial stability towards greater ease. If more solar power just makes the same people richer, we’ve failed.

We can’t wait. We’ve got to get serious, set goals, and keep score. As the NYMBUS report highlights, while all the data sources tell the same story about the sad state of solar industry when it comes to diversity, there are no comprehensive, consistently measured and validated annual reports. Equitable economic participation belongs right next to 100% renewable energy on Washington, D.C.’s clean energy scorecard. To win, we’ve got to recognize that the technical, regulatory, and financial complexity of the solar industry presents significant barriers to new people and businesses entering the field. Taking a page from the tech industry’s playbook, launching a clean energy incubator could support local entrepreneurs with the knowledge and networks they need to succeed.

That’s just the beginning of what turning Washington, D.C.’s solar leadership into equitable economic empowerment could mean. The opportunity is now, and Washington’s got what it takes. Let’s put the people in solar power and make it Made in D.C.

Kimberly Lewis is a senior vice president of community advancement at the U.S. Green Building Council and Michelle Moore is CEO of community solar nonprofit Groundswell.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Informer

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