By Matthew C. Whitaker
NNPA Guest Columnist
Numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that income disparities among different ethnic groups in the U.S. remain pronounced. Median weekly earnings for Black males are just 75.6 percent of the median for White males, and Black females’ earnings were 82.3 percent of the median for White females. Overall, African Americans are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as non-African Americans.
Those Americans – including many minority families – who remain below the poverty line face a sea of challenges, but one of the most important is the cost of household energy. This is a basic need – every family needs to heat and cool its home. So when we talk about energy policies in this country, we need to focus on the importance of affordability.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in a discussion in Charlotte, N.C. at the 2015 American Association of Blacks in Energy national conference, where we discussed some of the energy policy challenges of particular concern for the African American community. One such topic is renewable energy and how to foster its growth so that one day all consumers who want to make the choice to rely on clean fuels can. That we are fortunate enough to be at this point part of the energy policy debate is a testament to the innovation and cutting-edge technologies that this country is championing. Of course, any new opportunity brings challenges along with opportunities, and the dynamics behind the growth of rooftop solar panels specifically are no exception.
In fact, one rooftop solar policy that I spoke about at the conference is actually tipping the scales against minority and underserved communities like mine in favor of those who are more fortunate. That policy, called net metering, overcompensates rooftop solar users and essentially lets them bypass the cost of paying for the grid. This just does not work – the grid is something we all rely on to get our electricity. This includes those with rooftop solar panels that depend on the grid to get electricity when the sun doesn’t shine. So when rooftop solar users cut and run from paying for the grid, everyone else has to pick up the slack.
Because of the economics of rooftop solar, “everyone else” in this case ends up being the less financially well-off. Just think about it – first and foremost, you’ve got to have a house. This automatically eliminates anyone who lives in community housing, rents an apartment, or lacks clear property rights. And, according to a 2008 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, approximately 75 percent of all residential rooftop areas in the United States aren’t suitable for rooftop solar panels, because of climate, trees, and other constraints.
Finally, rooftop solar systems, which can run up to $40,000, are not financially feasible for many. Even to lease the panels, consumers must have a high credit score, which is yet another barrier.
So the cloudy reality with net metering is that it is a regressive policy, serving as a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. Ultimately, this is an issue of social justice, especially if it leads to the creation of energy poverty zones. There are some bright spots when it comes to this issue, however. Arizona, for example, is leading the way by trying to institute a cost structure that ensures the fair integration of rooftop solar while also sufficiently supporting the grid.
The path forward is clear: through discussions like the one we had in Charlotte, and in various forums across the country, energy stakeholders have an opportunity to shape policies that are more inclusive of minority communities. The good news is that meaningful public policies changes really can smooth the economic outlook for Americans, and importantly, minority populations like ours. In today’s economic environment, every fix counts.
Matthew C. Whitaker is ASU Foundation professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, in the School of Letters and Sciences, at Arizona State University. He is also the owner and CEO of The Whitaker Group, L.L.C., an equity and inclusion, cultural competency, and human relations consulting firm. He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker. The views and opinions expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, and official policies of Arizona State University.