Green energy must be allocated equally in Boston’s neighborhoods

 Massachusetts is ranked tenth in the nation for total installed solar capacity, boasting enough solar to power more than 900,000 homes. Yet, beneath this statistic lies a disconcerting truth: Solar energy may be exacerbating the divide between those who have and those who do not. We have the power to change this narrative and harness solar to create pathways to prosperity and equity for underserved communities, and, ultimately, to bring all of Massachusetts together in support of a green future. 

In the state’s capital, we see the immediate threat of climate change, with extreme heat, stormwater flooding, and coastal and riverine flooding. Communities of color are often harder hit by these environmental perils, as when 7,500 Dorchester households lost power during 2022’s record-breaking heat wave, while the rest of the city could keep fans and air conditioners running.  

Roxbury and Dorchester and similar neighborhoods pay twice the statewide average for energy as a percentage of income — close to or more than 6 percent of median annual income. Partially this reflects poor insulation and heating and cooling systems, and partially lower median income. But the result is that those who can least afford it are paying more of their income for power, may lack the savings or credit ratings to be able to put solar and other cost-saving technologies into play, and see a portion of their bill go to subsidize energy efficiency and renewable energy products that are often most utilized in wealthier communities.

This is the harsh reality of climate injustice, with low-income neighborhoods shouldering the dual burden of heightened impacts and high energy costs, while affluent areas reap the benefits of renewable energy.   

The urgency to act is palpable. Without intervention, communities will be left behind in the green transition and the burdens these disadvantaged communities carry will continue to grow. However, solar emerges as a beacon of hope, offering a solution to both climate and economic woes.  

Envision a Boston where every neighborhood, regardless of income, harnesses the power of the sun, fostering local environmental sustainability and economic empowerment. Solar energy, as a renewable resource, plays a pivotal role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change, while also improving local air quality.

On the economic front, solar presents a myriad of opportunities. Job training can equip residents with skills they need to thrive in the growing green energy sector, and to meet the state’s need for more and more energy workers in the decades to come. Solar can also lower energy costs for households and businesses alike, and community solar provides further access to clean energy, leveling the playing field and empowering renters and others who may not want rooftop solar to still participate in the renewable revolution. 

The Commonwealth’s first ever climate report card, released late last year, promisingly identified environmental justice as one of seven areas of action for the state, but in the environmental justice section of the report card a dismal picture emerged:  Of the six metrics of climate justice identified, five lacked any specific targets that might drive action. Two changes are coming that promise to fix that gap, helping foster economic prosperity, equity, and environmental sustainability across all Boston communities.  

First, there’s a wave of creativity washing across Boston’s historically marginalized black and brown neighborhoods, partially inspired by state funding through the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and other vehicles. Ideas like the Boston Community Solar Cooperative; the Chinatown and Chelsea community-owned microgrid projects; solar development that strengthens nonprofits and their offerings to the community, like the one planned for Children’s Services of Roxbury’s headquarters; and the Solar Helping Ignite Neighborhood Economies (SHINE) effort led by Rare, an international conservation organization specializing in social change for the environment, are all like new seedlings in the spring – showing at pilot scale the potential benefits to our communities that might come from growth to full scale.  

And this month the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced a $156 million award to the Commonwealth under the EPA’s Solar for All initiative. This funding is intended to advance solar energy for low-income residents. If properly applied, it should supercharge the early spring seedlings of environmental justice and equity, building the benefits of creativity and action for black and brown communities and other communities suffering from historic marginalization and discrimination. These investments are exciting; but it is imperative that communities benefit equitably.

Frank Lowenstein is senior director of Climate Culture Boston for Rare and Sandra McCroom is president & CEO Children’s Services of Roxbury.

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