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Op-Ed: Murphy, Lawmakers Can Make NJ a Solar State for All, Regardless of Income

Community solar projects would enable renters and others with limited income and space to enjoy the same economic benefits of solar as traditional rooftop consumers

Kasotia and Brooks
Pari Kasotia, left, and Cherie Brooks

When Gov. Phil Murphy took office — and affirmed his commitment to New Jersey's clean-energy future — there was a renewed sense of hope that strong local leadership would make meaningful progress on the state’s economy and environment. For years, poor policy decisions at the state capitol have derailed the state’s clean-energy economy and sidelined environmental justice communities and communities of color. New Jerseyans are ready for bold leadership from the governor and a changed course.

New Jersey has a golden opportunity to shine and to reclaim the top spot it once had in the clean-energy economy. But it must do so in a way that works for the betterment of all its people. We are looking to Gov. Murphy to show bold leadership and stay true to his promise of setting New Jersey on a path to 100 percent clean energy. It’s critical that any path forward brings clean-energy access to everyone, regardless of income, race, or geographic location, and that it expands the clean-energy economy more equitably to people of all backgrounds.

While a hefty goal, 100 percent clean energy by 2050 is not only possible, it also boasts majority support across party lines. A 2017 poll from the League of Conservation Voters shows that 70 percent of voters support the state’s transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

As solar and workforce advocacy organizations, we believe in the power of the sun to impact the lives of New Jersey residents. And with more than 7,000 solar jobs and over two gigawatts of installed capacity, solar is already delivering tremendous benefits across the state.

Increase solar access

Most of that solar progress is led by the rooftop market. And while panels-on-your-roof is a great model, it is limited to residents and businesses with suitable rooftops and simply isn’t an option for the majority of energy consumers. With one-third of New Jersey households renting and half of all residents living in multi-family buildings, the need for real solutions to increase solar access is urgent.

Access to the benefits of solar energy should reach beyond those who own their homes or have optimal rooftop space. As sunshine reaches all of us equally, so should solar energy reach all customers without restrictions.

The solution: community solar, which allows renters, residents of multifamily buildings, and those with space limitations to enjoy the same economic benefits of solar as traditional rooftop consumers. It also unlocks those benefits for schools, churches, small businesses, and other electricity customers who are motivated to lower utility bills.

Right now, community solar isn’t an option in New Jersey, which is why Vote Solar and Power52 are urging state lawmakers to establish a program this session. Investments in clean energy through community solar will create jobs, draw local investments, and deliver economic benefits to New Jersey.

Make it work for low-income households

To truly expand the benefits of solar, community solar must include a dedicated carve-out for low-income households and environmental justice communities. We’re recommending at least 15 percent, as more than a third of the state’s population falls under the low-to-moderate income level — of which 10 percent is at or below the poverty level.

On average, low-income households spend 7.2 percent of their income on utility bills — a proportion nearly three times what higher-income households spend. With such a large population in dire financial conditions, the last thing families should have to worry about is their ability to pay their utility bills.

Finally, we must ensure that solar propels New Jerseyans forward in the clean-energy economy, including New Jersey’s African-American and Hispanic residents, who face disproportionate levels of unemployment. While clean-energy policies create general employment opportunities, they should be matched with provisions for workforce development and job training, especially for frontline communities, to ensure maximum impact in communities that stand the most to gain.

To get started on this front, we at Power52 are planning to extend operations and our job training model in New Jersey. As a community solar developer, we combine clean-energy access services with on-the-job training for at-risk adults and formerly incarcerated citizens.

The benefits of clean energy are multidimensional; they help lower people’s daily expenses; they also offer job opportunities, strengthen communities, and improve people’s health.

We all want the same things for New Jersey — a healthy environment, a strong economy, and equal opportunity for everyone in all walks of life — be it access to clean power, clean air, or the clean-energy economy.

To realize that vision, the governor and Legislature must put New Jersey on the path to a 100 percent clean-energy future and enable community solar with provisions for low-income access and job training programs. New Jersey, your time to shine is now.

Pari Kasotia is the Mid-Atlantic director for Vote Solar, a nonprofit that works nationally to enable solar-friendly policies. Currently she is campaigning in New Jersey for stronger clean-energy policies. Cherie Brooks is the executive director at the Power52 Foundation, an advocacy organization that enables solar job-training and employment for underserved individuals; it will soon begin operating in New Jersey.

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