Solar Power Buildout Would Generate Billions in Economic Benefits, Create Millions of Jobs, Report Says

Making one fourth of American homes powered by solar energy would have incredible environmental and economic benefits, according to a new study.
July 21, 2021, 1:00pm
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Making one-in-four American homes use solar energy would generate millions of jobs and billions in utility bill savings, a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) found. 

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Published last week in collaboration with the Initiative for Energy Justice and the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors, the report outlines the benefits of a proposal to offer solar power to 30-million homes in the US within the next five years, an idea ILSR has championed alongside 225 other organizations since February. ILSR is a group that promotes small business and local jobs around the United States.

The plan strives to increase access to affordable clean energy, build green jobs and lower residential carbon emissions through tangible investments in green incentives and aid. Extending the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC); increasing funding for energy assistance and weatherization programs; and building out a national solar marketplace to support net metering (in which community solar users receive bill deductions for the clean energy they offer the grid) are all part of this approach. 

In all, the 30 Million Solar Homes project would cost $137-billion in government investments divided between federal agencies. It’s a hefty sum, but one that report author Katie Kienbaum, senior researcher at the ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative, says is necessary to make solar power ubiquitous nationwide. The up front investment would also pay for itself in the long term in savings on public health, utility debt, and unemployment.  For example, it would reduce consumer utility bills across the country by $69-billion in total and generate 1.77-million solar job years (one job that lasts one year) in the process. (Kienbaum and co-author John Farrell, co-director of the Institute and director of the Energy Democracy Initiative, used state retail energy rates and standard estimates for per-megawatt solar job requirements to conduct these calculations.)  

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“One in four American households is an ambitious, but entirely achievable number,” Kienbaum said. “It's on par with what countries like Australia have already deployed.” 

Kienbaum and Farrell estimate that the 30 million Solar Homes plan would reduce residential greenhouse gas emissions by 191 million tons over the next five years, and by 83 million tons each year beyond that. Respectively, that’s the equivalent of taking 42 million cars off the road for a year, and keeping 18 million of them off the road permanently, the report notes.

“[The proposal] is meant to kind of address a lot of the different issues that we're facing at this moment,” Kienbaum said. “From the climate crisis to ongoing economic recovery from the COVID pandemic, to historic racial and economic inequalities in our economy and our energy system.” 

The program’s goal is to show that locally-distributed solar power can be a solution to the climate crisis, Kienbaum says, though some parts of the country are better equipped to handle this transition than others. The report points to sun-heavy states like California, Texas, and Florida as possible leaders in the charge to generate 151 gigawatts of new solar capacity across the country. 

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58 percent of the solar panels ILSR is proposing would be installed on roofs; the other 42 percent would go to community solar systems, where renters, apartment-dwellers and individuals who otherwise couldn’t afford photovoltaic panels of their own can enroll in a larger program that replaces part of their fossil fuel energy use with energy from a nearby shared installation, and credits their utility bills accordingly. Around a third of Americans can access rooftop solar panels of their own; for the remainder who can’t, community solar programs offer an accessible alternative. 

A large-scale investment in solar power like this one would come at a vital time following economic fallout from COVID-19. As the country strives to recover from record job losses and surging energy poverty rates, the plan would boost employment rates and reduce energy burdens on low-income Americans who can’t afford their utility bills. It would lower public health costs by $1-billion per year by reducing pollutants from fossil fuel power, like sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, tiny pollutant droplets that can penetrate deeply into the lungs and cause lung irritation or long-term respiratory illness. 

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In the US, low-income and communities of color are disproportionately burdened by this type of pollution from fossil fuel infrastructure; the 30-Million Solar Homes program aims to right this wrong by prioritizing clean energy access to 20-million homes in environmental justice communities.

“A high target is necessary to begin to address the long legacy of harm to communities of color and low- and moderate-income communities caused by utilities and fossil fuel providers,” the report says. 

The plan starts by building out existing federal programs designed to chip away at energy inequality and incentivize solar installations. It proposes extending the Treasury Department’s Investment Tax Credit—a credit of 26 percent of the cost of installing solar panels—to non-taxable entities, like local governments and rural electric cooperatives and Americans with low tax liability. It builds out funding for solar energy as a form of energy assistance for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It would allocate funding to the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program to include solar power as a form of building renewal alongside window and insulation repairs. 

The proposal tackles the solar buildout from all angles, Kienbaum says, with the goal of finding as many entry points into funding the clean energy transition as possible. 

“30 million homes powered by solar would be a lot of solar; it would be a big growth, so we were thinking of a lot of different ways to get there,” Kienbaum says. “We're really just trying to change the conversation to actually focus more on these distributed energy solutions. We want to make sure that those are seen as a very important part of the solution to the climate crisis.”