Democratize access to clean energy

Solar benefits should be available in all communities

THIS FALL, millions of young people mobilized across the world to demand action on climate change. The international day of action, seen in Massachusetts outside city and town halls from Boston, to the Pioneer Valley to the South Coast, called for more than just global carbon reductions.  

Here in the Bay State, marchers demanded action from the governor and state Legislature – action matching the urgency of the climate crisis to accelerate clean energy, beat back fossil fuel infrastructure, and reverse the harms of environmental injustice.  

We cannot address the challenges of our time –– climate change, racism, and inequality –– without a massive mobilization for clean energy that lifts up all communities. In Massachusetts, a state of innovators with a strong clean power economy, we cannot simply wait on technological solutions. Instead, we must generate the political will, and inclusive policies, that enable every resident to participate in and benefit from climate solutions. 

The state has an immediate opportunity to show it is ready to act. Right now, the Baker administration is reviewing changes to incentives for solar development. The governor and Department of Energy Resources can set strong targets for solar expansion and ensure this program creates a realistic and viable pathway for low-and-moderate-income communities to participate.  

Energy policy might seem complicated, but it’s not an understanding of the issues that’s lacking. To date, the state has simply chosen not to prioritize the inclusion of those who rent their homes, lack capital or good credit, or reside in densely settled communities. This has terrible consequences for residents seeking to share in the light of the sun, and creates roadblocks for community development corporations, low-income housing developers, and faith institutions that are mobilizing to connect their neighborhoods with affordable clean energy. 

It’s time to take a different path. We can do so by carving out a portion of our solar program specifically to serve low-to-moderate income communities, setting fair compensation rates so these communities receive real reductions on their utility bills, and ensuring that community solar projects can be built where land or large rooftops are available. And we must ensure solar is available in all communities, from those serviced by municipally-owned power systems to those with investor-owned utilities. The state can also avoid difficult and costly bureaucracy by pre-qualifying environmental justice communities for stronger incentives.  

Because all residents pay into our clean energy programs, Massachusetts has a clear obligation to ensure everyone can benefit. Barriers to solar access are all the more unjust because those communities most burdened by pollution also have the least access to climate solutions. Communities like Boston and the state’s various Gateway Cities, with many renters, people of color, and low-income residents, struggle with high rates of asthma, pollution from industrial facilities, and outmoded transportation systems. 

We have shown that barriers to energy access are real, tangible, and impactful. When genuine efforts are made to address them, they are also resolvable. Within Massachusetts’ weatherization programs, even modest efforts towards equity, such as incentives for boiler replacement to encourage landlord participation, or funding to address older “knob and tube” wiring, have helped communities stay warm and reduce costs. Proposals in the pipeline could take us even further.  

Cities like Holyoke and Chelsea have taken action towards equitable energy transition and it’s time for the state to rise to the occasion, ensuring all energy programs serve the residents who need them most. The Baker administration should act this year by making stark changes to its solar policy, including mandated equity provisions and safeguards to ensure low-and-moderate-income communities benefit. To ensure the benefits of solar reach all Massachusetts residents, the Legislature should also advance bills introduced by Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz of Jamaica Plain Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston, Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton, and Rep. Carol Dykema of Holliston to secure equal access to solar, address energy affordability, and increase opportunities to share the benefits of clean energy projects across Massachusetts.  

Given the scale of the challenges we face, changes to a clean energy program might seem small. But solutions that lift everyone up are how we build a society that weathers heat and storms, and carries us forward through political crisis toward a brighter future.  

Meet the Author

Alex Morse

Mayor, City of Holyoke
Meet the Author
Alex Morse is the mayor of Holyoke and Thomas Ambrosino is city manager of Chelsea.