Credit: Tom Brewster / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Amee Raval, policy and research director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

California calls itself a leader in solar energy. While that might be true in white, wealthy neighborhoods, it’s not the case for the more than 70% of low-income Californians who rent — and don’t own a roof or a lot where they can install solar panels. 

Renters and low-income families already suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change and pollution from our dirty-energy economy. Yet we are denied the environmental, air quality, energy security and economic benefits of owning and generating our own clean, reliable, sustainable energy. 

This must change. 

The State Assembly will vote this week on AB 2316, which can put California on a path toward becoming a true solar leader for all, while also cutting utility bills for Californians who are suffering with exorbitant housing costs, gas prices and utility debt. 

The bill would create a statewide Community Renewable Energy Program, allowing utility customers to subscribe to community-based clean energy facilities. In return, subscribers receive credits on their electricity bills for the energy these facilities generate. To ensure low-income communities and communities of color benefit, the bill would require that at least 51% of the capacity of each community solar facility be subscribed to by low-income customers or service organizations.

AB 2316 would mean every Californian can choose clean energy and fight climate change while also bringing huge economic benefits. Right now, more than 3 million Californians are in utility debt totaling more than a billion dollars. Community solar would lessen the burden on folks who are being forced to choose between keeping the lights on or getting their prescriptions filled. 

By pairing community solar with storage, AB 2316 would also contribute to a safer and more reliable electricity grid. This is especially relevant as we approach another summer of extreme heat and projected power outages. Last summer, the Newsom Administration responded to such threats by allowing gas plants to run more often. This year, it is considering extending the life of gas plants set to retire as part of a $5.2 billion investment in energy reliability. However, prolonging the life of fossil fuels only deepens the dangers of our climate emergency. 

To ensure vulnerable Californians receive the full benefits AB 2316 can deliver, state leaders must include $1 billion in the state budget to support community solar and storage projects that are owned or subscribed to by low-income customers. The 2022-2023 budget proposes a total of $32 billion to address climate change impacts including $970 million for residential rooftop solar and storage. Nothing was reserved for community solar, which would reach a vast majority of renters and low-income communities who are unable to install solar on their roofs. 

AB 2316 presents tremendous opportunities because there are no viable solar programs serving California’s renters or low-income families today. This is not by accident. The California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees these programs, and corporate-owned utilities have long fought to kill real community solar. They have rejected reform, and instead supported efforts to suspend or terminate failed programs. The reality is, this alliance has often demonstrated more concern for preserving profits for utility shareholders than they have for delivering on the mandate for clean, renewable, and affordable energy for frontline communities.  

California can’t win the fight against climate change by keeping over half the state on the sidelines with policies that make being wealthy and white a requirement for clean energy access. Working class communities of color now see a potential path — through AB 2316. Surely California, with its abundant sunshine and strong commitments to clean energy, can become a true solar leader — by putting equity at the center of the state’s solar efforts.