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Makin Solar Accessible to Vermonters with Low Incomes

SEVCA (Southeastern Vermont Community Action) staff and legislative and community representatives gather in Westminster, VT to celebrate the completion of Phase 1 of the Community Solar for Community Action project. Courtesy photo.

George Harvey

At the VECAN Conference, one workshop topic was “Making Solar Accessible to Low Income Vermonters.” It was presented by Jason Edens of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) and Steve Geller of Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA).

Edens started the presentation with a discussion of “energy poverty.” He explained, “When families have to choose between home energy and other basic needs, families are living in what we typically call energy poverty.” He said that roughly 15% of all Americans live in this situation. Many of these people literally have to choose between heating and eating, at a time when the low temperatures make it important to increase caloric intake.

This is a serious problem. People die of cold in Vermont, because they cannot afford heat. People who are most endangered by energy poverty are the least likely to be able to insulate and weatherproof their homes, because they usually do not own them.

There are programs to help with assistance on fuel bills. While such help is important to people depending on it and clearly can be a life-saver, it is a short-term solution that does not address the underlying causes of poverty at all, but simply enables people to cope with its hardships.

That, however, is not the worst part of addressing energy poverty with assistance to buy fuel. Arguably, the worst problem we have in this world is climate change caused by burning fossil fuels. So giving fuel assistance contributes to climate change and the havoc it is creating.

Edens addressed this problem head on. He asked, “Do we want a carbon-intensive energy assistance program?” He then continued, “The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have both identified the energy assistance program as yet another fossil fuels subsidy.”

That is worth thinking about. Helping low-income households with fuel assistance can be seen as a subsidy for the fossil fuels industry. Edens has a solution, however, which he introduced by asking, “So the question is, do we want [fuel] assistance, or do we want solar assistance?”

The problem of energy poverty can also be seen from another perspective, one of addressing climate change. We cannot address climate change without addressing fossil fuel dependence among the poorest people among us.

Edens observed, “If we actually want to make a transition to a renewable economy, a clean energy economy, it’s absolutely essential that we intentionally create pathways to ensure that our low-income neighbors, friends, and community members also participate in the benefits of clean energy and of solar energy in particular.”

This raises the matter of how to deal with energy poverty. “Solar is a hedge against uncertainty,” Edens said. It provides not only local control and resilience, but a capacity to serve at least some of the low-income families within an area.

“We are all very committed to making this transition to a clean energy economy,” Edens said. “We cannot do so unless we ensure low-income communities have equal access to the benefits of solar energy and equal opportunity to participate in the clean energy economy.”

Edens’ presentation at the workshop was immediately followed by a talk by Steve Geller. SEVCA, the organization of which Geller is executive director, has had significant experience with addressing the problems of energy for a number of decades.

Geller’s presentation provided details of a project being built under a SEVCA–Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) partnership, “Community Solar for Community Action.” The project is going ahead with a 110-kilowatt array being built at SEVCA’s headquarters in Westminster, Vermont. The talk dealt with the vision, opportunities, challenges, and progress of the project, which was designed to fulfill the goals detailed by Edens.

This VECAN workshop can be viewed at bit.ly/VECAN-solar-accessible.

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