Photo: AP

California just became the first state in the U.S. to require all new buildings feature solar panels come 2020. The state’s Energy Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to update building standards and add this provision to help the state meet its emission targets.

Sounds great, right? After all, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will amount to 115,000 dirty cars off the road and a decrease in natural gas consumption, also resulting in fewer pollutants emitted. But there’s a problem: This move, a costly way to combat climate change, isn’t for low-income communities, including many California immigrant communities and communities of color.

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It’s for wealthy white people. And, well, that’s whack.

California is already a very expensive place to live, and these building standards will make new housing pricier. The panels are expected to add about $9,500 to home-purchasing costs, or $40 a month more for a 30-year mortgage. At the same time, however, homeowners are expected to see about $80 a month shaved off their utilities, resulting in a net savings of $19,000 over the long-term.

Sounds like a decent investment for those who can afford a new house. But that doesn’t include most low-income Californians, who already have low rates of home ownership. Newly built homes with solar panels just aren’t going to be places the state’s poorest can afford.

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“We want rooftop solar for our community members and in our communities,” Shana Lazerow, the legal director at local environmental organization Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), told Earther. “We have good success advocating for ways for our environmental justice communities to have access to rooftop solar through specific programs. This new building standard is not one of these programs.”

CBE isn’t alone in this view. Most folks with four grassroots environmental justice organizations I reached out to didn’t express much excitement over solar panels on new buildings. In fact, advocates seemed more worried that the move could drive up the costs of affordable housing units or, worse, impede affordable housing development entirely.

A study the commission published earlier this year about the new standards found there’d be no impact population growth or displacement, but it also didn’t mention anything about equity, race, class, or affordable housing. Its authors also didn’t take the time to come up with plans in case folks do get displaced. Apparently, they also ignored another option some argue would’ve been more effective for greening the housing sector: increasing the the amount of affordable housing.

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The Energy Commission told Earther, in an email, that local jurisdictions will have to figure out how to safeguard affordable housing developments. When pressed on the issue of equity, public information officer Amber Beck responded that the commission’s priorities are that building standards be technologically feasible and cost-effective.

“This means that our top priority is to ensure that any standard we adopt that has a price increase is made back by the consumer, usually in the form of a lower utility bill, within the life of the appliance or buildings,” wrote Beck.

“Overall, generally speaking, more solar is good,” said Stephanie Chen, the energy equity director at the Greenlining Institute, which is dedicated to racial justice, to Earther. “Generally speaking, the more clean electrons on the grid the better.”

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However, this proposal is missing a key ingredient, she said: delivering these electrons to the communities that need them most. Low-income families spend a larger portion of their income on energy, meaning they stand to benefit more from lower utility costs.

Lucky for them, there is plenty of other clean energy legislation being debated (or that’s already passed!) that does prioritize low-income communities.

Currently, the California Assembly is trying to amend its signature net metering bill, which would help connect residents’ energy systems to their utilities to sell and offset costs, so that more low-income communities can take advantage of it. Lazerow’s colleagues at CBE are suggesting community solar that would harness power on the roofs of local churches.

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The California Public Utilities Commission is also working on improving access to clean energy options for communities in the San Joaquin Valley, which deals with severe air pollution as a result of the state’s oil and gas production. Earlier this year, the commission voted to allocate $60 million toward clean energy research projects to learn more about how to cater to communities in need.

That’s not all. Through a Senate bill passed in 2012, the state also began earmarking 25 percent of its annual investment funds from cap and trade auctions to go toward low-income and disadvantaged communities to help fund projects geared toward protecting public health and the environment. The allocation was raised to 35 percent in 2016.

“What’s been cool is that since [that effort], similar policies have passed with a 25 percent carve-out for dedicating specific resources to EJ communities,” Chen said. “So not only did [that bill] have a direct monetary impact, but it also set a great precedent for equity to help expand these clean energy and climate policies.”

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So, yeah. Cali’s got some thangs going on. And for what it’s worth, some people are optimistic that this new rule can help increase access to clean energy.

“In general, we are excited to see the potential of this new rule to bring solar to EJ communities who are most impacted by climate change and dirty energy,” said Strela Cervas, an interim co-director at the California Environmental Justice Alliance, in an email to Earther. “We look forward to seeing a particular focus on disadvantaged communities incorporated into the statute.”

Fingers crossed.

Update 12:42 p.m.: This post was updated to reflect that annual investments to low-income and disadvantaged communities from the cap and trade auctions are now 35 percent, due to an increase in 2016 from a separate bill.

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