Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Southern California is a leader in urban and residential rooftop solar technologies. But this green energy boom has left many working-class Latinos behind.
SAN DIEGO It's a bright sunny day in San Diego, the kind of day that makes installing rooftop solar worth the extra trouble and initial expense.
Yet if you look at satellite images of one of the city's central neighborhoods, you'll notice there are almost no photovoltaic panels on roofs. In City Heights, a poor and working-class immigrant neighborhood, many of the families may think they simply can't afford solar, or that it isn't for them.
But that's not the case with Jessica Alvarez. She got her home two years ago as a fixer-upper. And on this day, a team of volunteer workers are putting the final touches on a couple of solar panels and an energy meter. Typically, a similar installation could cost up to $10,000. But for Alvarez, the whole thing will be completely free.
"For any homeowner that chooses to have solar panels, I would say that 75 percent of the cost will be paid," said Alvarez. "All you have to do is find out about it."
Alvarez qualified for free solar because she's a low-income, first-time homeowner and a single parent of two. Many Southwestern states now offer incentives like rebates for installations and tax credits.
But only California, so far, is trying to get working-class families like the Alvarez's to join the solar trend by partnering with private foundations for the low-income California Solar Initiative. That is at least partly because California has to meet ambitious green energy goals by 2020, and they will need participation from all income levels.
"People that are living paycheck to paycheck, or low-income, are the ones who really need solar most," said Paul Cleary, regional director with Grid Alternatives, a non-profit solar contractor focused on making photo-voltaics more accessible in low-income areas. In fostering a new and diverse group of solar clients, Cleary understands that the first step is to better explain the technology, and then, to calculate the savings.
"On a sunny day, in the middle of the day when the sun is out and you're not home and not using much power, your system is producing power," said Cleary. "It's sending that energy out into the grid to be used by others. And then at night when you come home you start turning on lights, your system is not producing power - then you draw energy from the grid. Basically, what you pay for is what you use minus what you produce."
Those savings can mean up to 70 percent off of an average electricity bill. But despite this, solar technologies and so-called "green" lifestyle choices have been slow to arrive in the Latino and immigrant communities around the U.S.
Professor Ramon Corona of San Diego's National University said this may be the result of a lack of marketing specifically for Latinos. Corona is leading a group of researchers in the first study of green lifestyle choices in the ever-growing Latino population, and speculated that their consumer values are simply different.
"This ethnic group isn't as conscious or aware of taking care of the environment and recycling bottles and newspapers, and thinking about the well-being of the environment in the long-run," said Corona. "Maybe we're wrong about this assumption, but we'll soon find out."
Demand for solar power has increased by 2,800 percent over the last 10 years, but it still only makes up less than 1 percent of the state's electricity supply. Continued expansion will depend on finding in-roads into this region's fastest-growing demographic, Latinos.