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California Is Giving Free Solar Panels to the Poor

Taxing the rich to give the poor clean power.
May 25, 2015, 4:40pm
Rooftop solar. Image: Oast House

In California, polluting companies are paying to line the roofs of the disadvantaged with solar panels. It's not charity, either, exactly—it's public policy. Very good policy.

The San Francisco Chronicle explains how a new program arising from the state's cap-and-trade law—in which companies must pay, per ton, for their carbon pollution—is delivering solar to the poor: "Run by Oakland nonprofit Grid Alternatives, the effort will install home solar arrays in disadvantaged neighborhoods, using $14.7 million raised through California's cap-and-trade system for reining in greenhouse gas emissions."

California is the best state in the country for solar; incentive programs, innovative companies, and progressive consumers have helped solar get a foothold there more than anywhere else. But the lion's share of the solar went solely to the upper-middle classes and the wealthy, who could afford its steep upfront costs.

Grid Alternatives, which has been around for over a decade, has long sought to change that balance—and the cap and trade is providing the funds to give it some extra muscle. The nonprofit now plans on installing solar panels on 1,600 homes by the end of next year, for free. Anyone who lives in a neighborhood the state currently designates as disadvantaged, qualifies.

And yes, for free. Here's the Chronicle again: "Most homeowners are asked to make small contributions for the installation, such as agreeing to feed the crew installing the array, or agreeing to help with the installation themselves. Otherwise, it's free." The system will save households between $400-1,000 dollars a year in electricity costs, as long as the sun is shining.

This is perhaps the best example of cap-and-trade I've seen in action. The policy is controversial on both sides of the aisle—on the right, because it's perceived as a tax on business, on the left because the carbon credits could be traded to enrich corporations. But this, ideally, is how it's supposed to work: Factories and fossil fuel plants pay for the damage they're doing to the climate, and the credits go to repairing it. Here, the benefits go both to the environment—the clean energy means lower emissions—and to low income residents, who get a break on their electric bills.

It also has the advantage of boasting "good optics," as the pundits like to say: It's hard for even the steeliest-hearted, Randiest conservative to argue that taxing pollution to give the poor clean power is a bad idea (though I'm sure plenty will).

The Grid Alternative program is great, but it's also a bit of a patchwork. Right now it sounds like it relies on donations from solar companies and volunteer labor. If it were streamlined, better-funded, expanded, and made permanent—especially as the cost of carbon rises under the cap and trade scheme—it would serve as a powerful tool to help mitigate climate change.