Consistently ranked among the “Greenest Cities in America,” Oakland is known for its municipal commitment to sustainability, its green businesses, and numerous green non-profit and community organizations. But how far has the green revolution extended to low-income residents, who live in the city’s worst pollution hotspots? In part one of this two-part series, Oakland Local reporter Eric K. Arnold examines the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy for low-income residents, as well as the challenges and obstacles which stand in the way of more widespread adoption.

OAKLAND, Calif. — For Adama Mosley, a resident of the West Oakland neighborhood known as “Ghosttown,” having solar panels installed on her home was “a dream come true.” Mosely had long been concerned about high levels of pollution from freeways and nearby brownfields (contaminated former industrial sites), contributing to the area’s high levels of asthma.

“I wanted to help do something to help clean up the neighborhood,” she says.

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She also wanted to save money. A grandmother who is raising three adolescent grandchildren, Mosley’s electric bill consumed a disproportionate amount of her monthly income—as much as a quarter, she says. Paying the bill each month took a sizeable bite out of her fixed income. Mosley says she had a solar installer look at her property a while back, but was put off by the high costs.

For a typical household, a complete solar system runs between $15,000—$20,000, not including roof repairs, which can add another $10,000 to the cost. In Mosley’s neighborhood, the annual household median income is under $26,000, making solar all but impossible for most residents.

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Solar seemed out of reach for Mosley until one day four years ago, when she was contacted by Jahahara Alkebulan-Ma’at, the Bay Area Outreach Coordinator for Grid Alternatives, a national non-profit organization specializing in solar installations and other services for low-income households.

Alkebulan-Ma’at says he often goes door-to-door in neighborhoods like Oakland’s Ghosttown, visiting residents to see if they qualify for Grid’s services. When he told Mosley she might be eligible for no-cost solar installation, she felt elated. “I couldn’t believe that someone was actually doing something,” she recalls.

Unlike some of her neighbors, Mosley owned her own home, wasn’t facing foreclosure, and had a roof in good condition. “Solar by itself won’t do it all,” Alkebulan-Ma’at explains. “We’re not gonna put solar on a bad roof,” he says – a common problem in low-income communities. Often, he adds, he’ll help homeowners connect with home improvement programs so they can qualify for a full solar installation.

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Mosley diligently filled out the extensive paperwork required to become a Grid client, and qualified for 100% financing, which the non-profit cobbled together through a state rebate and a grant from a neighborhood group, the West Oakland Project Area Committee (WOPAC).

The power generated from her solar panels practically wiped out her monthly electricity bill – which dropped from about $350/month to $5/month. The cost savings help, but she adds, the big payoff for her was being able to reduce her carbon footprint and break “a circle of pollution.”

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Mosley’s investment in solar panels reduces her electricity costs and comes from a source that doesn’t make the air in her neighborhood – which already has pollution problems – worse.

In nearby East Oakland, the Hegenberger Corridor is a major transportation route which sees over 218,000 vehicle trips a day, many by pollution-spewing diesel trucks. Combined with the area’s numerous industrial sites, the corridor is so polluted that it’s no wonder that East Oakland has an asthma rate as much as 200 percent higher than that of Alameda County overall.

The state EPA has placed East and West Oakland’s pollution hotspots in the top 10 percent of the most polluted neighborhoods in the state, according to its Enviro-Screen tool. Residents in these communities, who are mostly black, Latino, and low-income, have fewer resources to deal with the pollution and, studies show, poor people pay a disproportionate amount of their income for utilities.

“Solar is not really affordable for folks that live in low-income communities,” explains Nehanda Imara, the East Oakland Coordinator for Communities For a Better Environment, a non-profit environmental organization. “In deep East Oakland, I’ve seen one, maybe two houses with solar in the flatlands,” Imara says.

In contrast to tonier areas of Oakland or nearby Berkeley, rooftop solar installations are uncommon among East and West Oakland flatland residents. This isn’t surprising, considering that the median income in one heavily polluted corridor in the Hegenberger area is under $33,000 annually.

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Vien Truong, Environmental Equity Director for the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute, which advocates for communities of color, says that “solar financing is out of reach” for low-income households, who often don’t qualify for home improvement loans. “Even if you own your own home, you can’t put that much investment” into solar energy, Truong says, an expense which, she notes, “takes years to recoup.”

Little Help From Private Sector

Brownfields, like this one in Adama Mosely's West Oakland neighborhood, contaminate the soil and contribute to environmental pollution in Oakland's flatlands.

Brownfields, like this one in Adama Mosely’s West Oakland neighborhood, contaminate the soil and contribute to environmental pollution in Oakland’s flatlands.ctor

As rooftop solar has become more popular among residential homes and businesses, installation costs have fallen, decreasing by almost 30 percent since 2007. Yet even with the lower cost, solar is still cost-prohibitive for many homeowners and business owners. And while there has been a proliferation of solar installation companies both large and small operating in California in recent years, most do not target low-income households.

At a street fair this past July in North Oakland, A1 Sun, a Berkeley-based solar installation company whose motto is “power for the people,” greeted passers-by, extolling the benefits of solar power for homeowners.  Yet when asked if A1 Sun’s services were available for low-income customers, CEO Larry Guistino bluntly stated that his company is too small to offer discounts, referring a reporter to larger companies like Sungevity and Solar City.

Will Craven, PR Manager at Solar City’s Redwood City office, says that his company’s “entire mission is geared around making solar electricity as affordable as possible.” However, he conceded that “we do not have a specific program for lower-income customers.”

‘Community-building’ Through Renewable Energy

Rooftop solar is slowly becoming more common in neighborhoods in East Oakland.

Rooftop solar is slowly becoming more common in neighborhoods in East Oakland.

Grid Alternatives is one of the few community organizations bringing solar to impoverished neighborhoods in Oakland. The non-profit, which serves as program manager for the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) Single-family Affordable Solar (SASH) program, partners with municipalities, state agencies, and affordable-housing developers such as Rebuilding Together and Habitat for Humanity to offer solar installation for zero or little cost to qualified applicants. Homeowners like Mosley, whose income is less than 50% of the area household median, can qualify for no-cost installation, while those whose income is less than 80% of the area household median can qualify for substantially-reduced-cost installation.

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According to Mary Biasotti, Grid’s Bay Area Regional Director, to date the organization has performed 171 installations in Oakland, the majority of which are in West and East Oakland. That represents 376,000 kilowatts of solar, which she says is equivalent to the air quality benefits of planting 260,000 trees.

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One of the challenges impacting wider adoption of solar power in low-income neighborhoods, Biasotti says, is convincing residents “they can be part of the green movement” – a privilege often perceived as reserved for affluent homeowners.

Sometimes, trying to sell low-income residents on solar means appealing to their pocketbooks.

Alkebulan-Ma’at has been working with Grid since 2008, doing outreach in communities like West Oakland’s Ghosttown, Richmond’s Iron Triangle, and San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point – neighborhoods collectively referred to as the “Toxic Triangle” by environmental justice advocates. His pitch to residents of these communities usually involves projecting the savings in utility bills from solar installation (“mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money,” he says) and he’s been known to reference Teddy Pendergrass’ 1979 hit “Turn Off the Lights” to drive home the message of energy efficiency.

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More than just offering energy savings and utility relief, Alkebulan-Ma’at says, “the result of our work has been community-building.” Last year, he notes, Grid hosted a “solarthon”; over 300 volunteers participated, and 10 installations were completed in one day. Besides helping to educate people about the benefits of renewable energy, he says, collective installations bring “positive energy to the community.”

A tower in the Acorn Projects looms over a rooftop solar installation at Bayporte Village in West Oakland.

A tower in the Acorn Projects looms over a rooftop solar installation at Bayporte Village in West Oakland.

Bayporte Village is one such community. Formerly known as Acorn Village, the West Oakland residential area was rife with open-air drug sales and other rampant criminal activity, exemplifying the worst in affordable housing, before being redeveloped by the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in 2000. Today, Bayporte Village is a quiet residential area with much lower crime. Its 71 units were styled with a quaint, suburban look; solar panels installed by Grid Alternatives are visible from numerous rooftops throughout the development, serving as a symbol of the transformation of the neighborhood from a blighted area to a revitalized community.

Residential Solar Programs at Capacity

Residential solar projects represent a win-win scenario for low-income residents: they save on energy costs, clean up the environment, add to property values, and can help communities shed the stigma of crime and blight.

In 2004, then-Governor Schwarzenegger called for the construction of a million solar homes by 2017; in recent years, there has been a statewide push to bring affordable solar to low-income communities. In 2007, the CPUC launched the California Solar Initiative (CSI), which put $2.3 billion toward incentive programs and subsidies for solar installation for both single-family and multi-family homes, as well as businesses.

Yet while the CPUC touts CSI as a success—more than 135,000 solar installations have been completed since it launched, and it’s met 70 percent of its program goals in the Bay Area—low-income communities of color continue to be under served. Almost 90 percent of CSI’s funding was allocated for general market incentive programs administered by IOUs; just 10 percent of the CSI budget went to low-income residential households and multi-family dwellings.

As of June 2013, CSI’s Multi-Family Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) program has completed fewer than 300 projects statewide – a drop in the bucket, compared to the millions of residents in multi-family housing.  Almost 100 MASH projects are pending, and there is currently a waitlist for new applicants.

The SASH program’s residential solar component is also at capacity and, while it’s done 3,200 rooftop solar installations statewide in low-income households – about 500 applications have been wait-listed, Biasotti says —  that, too, represents a mere drop in the bucket. Furthermore, as of May 2013, the CSI’s Non-Residential Program (which helped small businesses defray solar installation costs) and Thermal Heater Program (which offered rebates for solar water heaters) have also been wait-listed.

Solving the Energy Equation

Energy advocates say significant challenges lie ahead if affordable renewable energy and widespread adoption of energy efficiency are to become a reality in low-income communities of color. By far the biggest hurdle for solar in these communities is the lack of home ownership; in multi-family residences, landlords typically don’t pay utility bills.

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Programs like MASH and SASH were developed with good intentions, but without “adequate resources to impact what’s needed,” says Al Weinrub of the Local Clean Energy Alliance, an Oakland-based grassroots advocacy organization.

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In Truong’s view, solving the energy equation for low-income communities is a complex problem. Any true solution, she says, has to address economic as well as environmental factors. “How do we solve property and pollution at the same time?… How do we improve air quality in West Oakland?… How do we get [residents of these communities] into a career-track job?”

While there are no quick and easy answers to those questions, there are some encouraging signs. The SASH and MASH programs were recently extended for another five years, ensuring continued access to affordable solar for low-income communities, at half the cost of the previous initiative.

And the CPUC is addressing the multi-family residence issue by rolling out a pilot program in 2014 which provides incentives to landlords for energy efficiency measures — including rooftop solar, reducing asbestos and lead-based materials, and more efficient windows — as well as roof repairs for low-income families.

Even so, those programs won’t meet the needs of all the low-income residents who could benefit from them. “If you’re going to have programs and policies that are gonna work, they’ve gotta work for that segment of the population,” Weinrub says. “None of this stuff works unless the community is engaged.”

THANK YOU!! This work was supported by a 2013 New America Media Energy Reporting Fellowship in collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal.

How Green Is the Hood series, Nov. 25 & 26, 2013

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