The “Who’s Who” of Solar Energy

This is part two in a series on solar energy. Click here to read Part 1, "Two Reasons Christians Should Care About Solar Energy"

When you think about a home with solar panels on the roof, what kind of person comes to mind?

Maybe you think of the die-hard environmentalist who, of course, also drives a hybrid or electric vehicle. Perhaps a tech savant comes to mind - someone who is always first in line to get the new iPhone and follows every technology trend. Or maybe you’re reminded of your frugal but open minded neighbor who will give anything a try, as long as it saves some money.

I recently worked in sales for a solar installer. I met a few of these people as I knocked on doors seeking my next candidate for a solar home. Rooftop solar is a way to generate electricity directly on your roof. This electricity is funneled directly into your home electrical system, reducing your need for electricity from the utility company and saving you money.

But what does it take to actually get a solar system on your home, and who might be left out? Let’s consider three major qualifications.

First, by-and-large, you need to be a homeowner. If you’re a renter, owner of a unit in a multi-unit building, or otherwise don’t have rights to the roof space above you or a piece of land around you, you can’t unilaterally decide to get a solar system installed on site (though there are work-arounds such as community solar).

Second, your home needs to have a roof and electrical system that supports solar. If you have a solid roof and modern breaker box, well and good, but if not, you’ll need to invest in some upgrades and repairs before you can safely get solar installed on your home.

The third element is cost. To buy a solar energy system outright, the average household in the U.S. would need to invest at least $10,000 into equipment and labor to install solar panels on their home and cover the majority of their electricity usage. If outright purchasing isn't an option, there are other types of financing, such as leases and power purchase agreements, which allow homeowners to benefit from lower utility bills and reduced environmental footprint without actually owning the solar system. These types of financing typically require a certain level of credit for the homeowner to qualify.

Indeed, solar is becoming more accessible to a greater number of people, but when it comes to meeting these qualifications, most people in lower income communities and plenty of people in the middle class are left out.

But let’s pause for a moment. Solar energy systems aren’t a right or entitlement either. Just because you want solar panels on your roof doesn’t necessarily mean you should get them, right?

What does it take to actually get a solar system on your home, and who might be left out?

Before I lose people on the left or the right, consider this: people of means have much more choice in decisions like this than people on a limited income. While I was working in sales, I met a number of people who were eager to sign up for solar, some who were deciding, and many who had no time or interest. Whatever the case, they had full sovereignty on this choice. I also met people who could substantially benefit from some extra savings on their electric bill didn’t often qualify. This was problematic for me.

Consider some of our callings as Christians also. On one hand, God calls us to care for the earth. Due to the way we consume resources and burn fossil fuels, we are putting both the land and its people in a state of crisis. On the other hand, it’s also a matter of kindness and compassion. In Matthew 25, Jesus reminds us that a drink or a meal for someone in need is also an offering to God. Solar isn’t an entitlement; it can be a gift and a blessing.

It’s somewhat obvious, but worth stating explicitly, that people on limited income pay a higher portion of their wages toward utilities. Low income solar is an opportunity for us as a community to care for families who could use some help on their utilities, and do so in a sustainable way.

This is much more than just a simple act of charity or a careless handout. Most solar equipment is good for 20 years or longer, so when a household receives this equipment, they will have help with their utilities for as long as the equipment lasts and as long as they own their home. As part of the programming at my workplace, GRID Alternatives, we also educate our homeowners about energy conservation and stewardship so they can get the maximum benefit and pay the least amount of money towards utilities. At the same time, unlocking access to solar is speeding our transition to a clean and renewable power economy. The benefit is far reaching, far beyond just a single homeowner.

Further, because nonprofits exist for a public good, we are not subject to the same hustle as private companies. Our clientele is a unique segment of the population, and our workforce is also. As part of our mission, we serve as a training ground for people looking to gain skills and get into the industry. That includes general volunteers (anyone can come on the roof for an install with us!), job trainees, and Fellows like myself.

As an example, we recently hosted a six-week summer program for some job trainees - young people looking for job skills, but who had never worked in solar and never laid hands on a solar panel. We recently hired three of the participants from the program with others interviewing for positions with other solar installers in the area. These are skilled positions in a substantially growing industry and by-and-large cannot be outsourced.

Rooftop solar presents a unique opportunity to address issues of poverty, environment, and employment. It doesn’t have to be just an amenity for those with means, but a gift that touches many lives.

-David Johnson is an engineer and problem solver by training, an educator and facilitator by experience, and a humanitarian and environmentalist at heart. He currently works as a SolarCorps Construction Fellow at GRID Alternatives, an nonprofit solar installer which helps lower-income families gain access to solar and renewable energy. You can find him on Twitter @superharmonic.