By Luis Davila
April 8, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
As we face a once-in-a-lifetime crisis due to the effects of the coronavirus, we also have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform our energy system to one that is cleaner, safer and more equitable. This improved system can deliver local, affordable and clean energy options to all energy customers, especially low-income families who will be disproportionately affected by the effects of the coronavirus.
Thankfully, prior to this crisis, we had already started to take steps to pursue this improved energy system. It is time to accelerate our transition to a more decentralized, resilient energy system.
Early estimates suggest that the solar industry could suffer losses between 16 and 30 percent of volume in 2020, and some sectors could see as much as 50 percent reduction. This could lead to job losses of up to 120,000 jobs compared to the 250,000 employed in solar in 2019.
These losses would all be attributed to the coronavirus. Imagine if we instead took swift action to save these jobs and encourage additional hiring to deploy more local solar across the country.
This drop in the market comes at exactly the same time the price of local solar energy continues to fall, and lower-income households are increasingly going solar. Households with incomes of less than $100,000 grew from 39 percent of solar adopters in 2010 to 48 percent in 2018. In the case that customers are unable to site solar on their roof, the ability for homes and businesses to participate in offsite solar systems via community solar is critical in order to expand access to solar for all customers.
The overall capacity of community solar has more than quadrupled since 2016, increasing from more than 300 megawatts to over 2,000 megawatts today. The next five years were expected to see the U.S. community solar market add as much as 3.4 gigawatts, roughly being able to power 650,000 homes.
Local solar, such as rooftop and community solar, helps to reduce and manage electricity bills. This provides direct economic savings to families, churches, schools and businesses month after month, especially in low- and moderate-income communities that are the most challenged by the effects of the coronavirus.
By generating energy close to customers, local solar can reduce demand for costly, large-scale utility infrastructure such as high-voltage transmission lines, as well as defer or displace the need for distribution infrastructure. All of this can provide additional savings, which can help free up limited resources to other stimulus activities.
Local solar programs have also proven to create opportunities for competition, innovation and new ownership models that are not dependent on old monopoly utilities. Such democratization of ownership models can help to avoid the concentration of power in monopoly utilities, as these deliver fewer customer benefits and undermine protection of the public interest. This is particularly useful as we unleash American innovation to maintain existing business and explore new ventures, which can lead to increased economic opportunity for communities across the country.
The coronavirus also exposed how vulnerable we are to unexpected societal shocks. The United States is particularly vulnerable to facing power outages from extreme weather events and other electricity disruptions, as we witnessed during last year’s California wildfires and Puerto Rico’s experience with hurricanes Maria and Irma.
Local solar, especially when paired with batteries, provides a direct resilience solution, continuing to operate during grid outages and a better alternative to diesel generators. In the case of California, policymakers understood the need to build a more decentralized, resilient energy system and are spending half a billion dollars by 2024 to help vulnerable customers install onsite batteries.
There are concrete ways that Congress could help to accelerate the development of a more decentralized, resilient energy system as part of the next round of economic stimulus. Such measures include extending clean energy tax credits that make going solar more economical, providing new incentives to deploy batteries as a resiliency measure and increasing support to work development programs that target low-income communities.
It is time to move ahead quickly and decisively so that we can deliver on local solar for all as soon as possible. Our communities must become less exposed to risks, whether these are linked to our energy or health systems. Now is the time to build up a more local, decentralized approach that puts communities at the center of economic development.
Luis Davila is a clean energy policy advocate and former director of campaigns and advocacy at Sunrun, and before that, he was a campaign leader at the U.N. Climate Change secretariat in the lead up to the Paris Climate Agreement.
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