Talking about Solar

So I was listening to the radio on my morning commute, and because my true age apparently hovers somewhere around solidly-middle-aged, it was tuned to the local NPR station, which it turned out, was featuring a segment wherein Minnesotans could call in to talk about their experiences with solar power in the state. 

Now, when occurrences like this happen–when vaguely climate-related issues get talked about in a public setting–I often have this dual reaction wherein half of me is pretty excited that something like solar power is getting talked about at all in a setting like public radio, and the other half of me is slapping my forehead in frustration because the conversation around said climate topic tends to be pretty un-nuanced and frankly feels light-years behind what we should be talking about as a public. 

To take today’s programming for example, the prompt was that any Minnesotan could call in to talk a little bit about their own experiences with solar power, including if they’ve had it installed on their house, what that’s been like, and/or if they’ve got questions about solar in Minnesota. Now, I only got to listen to the first two callers-in before I had to hop out of my car, but it went something like this: First, we had John, who called in to share his own experience of having solar installed on his house last year, and we learned that the power generated by the solar panels covered all of his electricity costs for the past year, a point that was repeated back by the radio. Okay, so solar power can save consumers money on their utility bills–I’m so here for it, but haven’t we known that for a bit? Maybe there are other things about solar to discuss…?

Next up, we had a woman (I forget her name– let’s call her Sally) whose parents had owned a solar-powered water heater back in the 70’s (in case you were wondering) and she now owns or lives at (it was unclear to me) a rental property that recently installed solar panels. Our host asked Sally if she had saved any money through solar panels, which she had, but with the twist that because the rental building was heated by electricity, the solar panels installed at the property could actually only supply a fraction of the power needed by that building, and therefore we really need large-scale solar power, like community solar co-ops, and–

“Thanks so much for calling in, Sally. Turning to our next caller…”

Oh, but we were just getting to the good part! 

I have a ton of respect for radio hosts wrangling callers-in who are live on-air, and honestly I’m not sure I wanted to hear Sally’s entire diatribe (she was on a roll), but I appreciated her shout-out to the need for larger scale solar rather than just individual homeowners installing panels on their own property. I wish that point had been a larger part of the radio discussion, which ended up being about how homeowners could save money on their utility bills by installing solar panels.

We’ve talked about this before, but this focus on individual-level solutions is a huge problem for the climate movement for many reasons: One is that at the rate individuals are making changes, it simply is not enough to change our collective trajectory. But even more glaringly, many many many individuals do not have the capacity to make these changes, something Sally alluded to when she mentioned the rental property. If you don’t have disposable income to cover potentially high upfront costs or if you don’t own property (which many people don’t), then you can’t have solar power under this individualized system. And because of historical and current inequities, this means we see a huge disparity in the amount of solar power and other renewable energies reaching low-income communities and communities of color who have historically been shut out of owning homes. Especially in somewhere like the Twin Cities, which has the largest racial homeownership gap in the nation, with White homeownership sitting around 70% and Black homeownership sitting around 21% in 2018. 

Though I appreciated the fact that MPR was taking the time to discuss solar power on air, it would have been awesome to move beyond just the simple fact that individual homeowners can save on their utility bills by installing solar. Let’s include context about how renewable energy cuts carbon pollution and air pollution, leading to healthier communities. Let’s talk about community-owned solar co-ops. And let’s definitely talk about why we need to include low-income households in any energy solution and how we can achieve that. Failing to do so leaves us stuck in our individualized, unequal, and unproductive little climate silos, and nobody’s got the time, nor the energy, for that. 

Luckily, there are groups and individuals doing great work to not only bring awareness to but also taking action on this issue of energy justice, as reported in this Yale Environment 360 article: Energy Equity: Bringing Solar Power to Low-Income Communities. If you’re feeling like you want to take a deeper dive into addressing the energy equity issue, I’d highly recommend checking out what you can do with the org Vote Solar, which works at the state level in 27 states and also has some cool national initiatives to get “100% clean energy for all.” Plus, if you want to dig into some solar data, a new Global Solar Power Tracker was released on the Global Energy Monitor site. And last but not least, Yale Environment 360 published a really important interview with activist Elizabeth Yeampierre about the intersections between racism and climate change and how climate activists and the climate movement can do better. 

Thanks all for reading my diatribe this week (no host to cut me off…), and catch y’all back here next week!

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