Expert Voices: Melanie Nutter, Director, City of San Francisco Department of the Environment

In this post, Melanie Nutter argues that equitable access is key to San Francisco’s solar success.

“When you think of homeowners with solar panels, you probably don’t think of me,” stated Mardina Graham, a low-income senior living in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, one of San Francisco’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. Yet today, Mardina is one of more than 100 homeowners in her neighborhood with solar rooftops, reaping the benefits of a technology which has historically been challenging for this and other communities to access.

San Francisco’s success in reaching our underserved communities arose from a concerted, city-wide effort to set an ambitious long-term goal for renewable energy and engage participants from a diverse group of stakeholders. Key stakeholder partnerships coupled with creative approaches to funding and overcoming the barriers to solar adoption were essential to ensuring equitable distribution of solar throughout the city.

The first solar systems in Mrs. Graham’s neighborhood were funded by environmental justice (EJ) grants awarded by San Francisco’s Department of the Environment to local non-profits, including GRID Alternatives. GRID Alternatives, then a start-up non-profit solar installer, was funded to put solar installations on homes and community buildings to provide clean energy and job training to area residents. The initial EJ grants were part of a broader City partnership with community activists to reduce pollution and address energy concerns in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood. These efforts helped to close a local, fossil fuel-based, power plant that was among California’s dirtiest.

Bayview Resident Lawrence Jackson

Local residents soon started to see the benefits that solar energy could provide to their neighborhood: a clean, reliable energy source, lower electricity bills, and real job opportunities. The City awarded more than $2 million in EJ grants for solar training and installations, and supported GRID Alternatives’ vision to make solar affordable.

Meanwhile, city leaders were taking measures to increase solar adoption across the city, and created a task force to develop recommendations to support local solar market development. The task force included not only the relevant city departments, but also environmental and community advocates and solar installers. The task force tackled solar from every angle: How could the city make it more affordable? How could we ensure its continued adoption in low-income communities? How could we increase workforce development opportunities? How could structural barriers like permitting costs and turnaround time be addressed?

Solar Incentive Program: GoSolarSF

With the help of local solar installers, the city’s Department of Building Inspection implemented “over the counter” solar permitting, and reduced the cost to under $100 for residential installations, down from $1400. The task force and local advocates also helped create GoSolarSF, a local solar incentive program, which launched in 2008 under the administration of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. GoSolarSF provides direct rebates to defray the costs of solar for businesses, non-profits and residents, and offers a bolstered rebate for low-income families and those in neighborhoods with historic and ongoing environmental justice issues. The low-income rebate dovetails with the State of California’s Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) program, allowing residents of San Francisco’s most underserved communities to ‘go solar’ at a fraction of the usual cost.

Young Community Developers Job Trainees

In addition to reducing the cost of solar, the GoSolarSF program has been stimulating the local solar market and creating new local workforce development jobs. GoSolarSF requires participating installers to employ graduates of city workforce development programs, putting more than 100 disadvantaged community members into clean energy jobs to date with participating solar companies. GRID Alternatives, which performs low-income installations under the SASH program, incorporates additional job training opportunities into its projects, many of which are in the same neighborhoods where the solar trainees live.

The program has seen tremendous success at every level by bringing the city more than a third of the way to its long-term goal of 10,000 solar rooftops; by living up to its jobs promise; and by distributing solar across every neighborhood in the city.

The participation of neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunter’s Point has been critical to the success of the city’s growing solar portfolio. Their inclusion has ensured that communities most impacted by poverty and pollution are getting access to clean, affordable energy and solar jobs. Programs like the one implemented by GRID Alternatives have positioned the technology as a practical solution for day-to-day economic challenges faced by low-income residents while helping set the stage for large-scale renewable energy adoption city-wide.
“We’re not going to truly green our cities or create new industries if we only focus on wealthy people who can afford things like solar power,” Mrs. Graham noted. “All residents, regardless of income, need to be part of this equation.”

To learn more about San Francisco’s solar energy policies and programs, click here.