Stepping Into The Sun: A Mission To Bring Solar Energy To Communities Of Color

Jul 23, 2019
Originally published on July 29, 2019 9:57 am

A few years ago, Jason Carney came across a statistic that took him by surprise.

In its 2015 survey of jobs in the solar industry, the nonprofit Solar Foundation reported that 0.0% of solar workers in the state of Tennessee were black or African American.

That number caught Carney's eye because the Nashville native is African American — and was working there as a solar installer in 2015. In fact, he was starting to design a solar array for his own home in north Nashville. Clearly, there had been an undercount.

But, he thought, maybe not by much. Throughout his career, Carney, 39, has frequently been the only person of color in the room. It was true when he worked in the heating and cooling industry, and it remained true as his professional path led him into green building work and solar design.

"Going into [a] boardroom, I'm the only person of color. We go to these conferences, and I'm the only person of color. We go to the U.S. Green Building Council — the local chapter — and of 200 people, it might be me and maybe one other person of color," he says. "It was very intimidating."

Add to that, Carney says, there was just no talk about solar or clean energy within Nashville's black communities. It was a depressing reality, he thought, given that solar is booming in the U.S., with installations doubling in the past three years and set to double again by 2023, according to the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

Fearful that communities of color will miss out on the economic and environmental benefits of clean energy, Carney is working to introduce solar in places where it has yet to take off and to people who may not think that solar is for them.

While Carney is focused on Tennessee, research shows that his experiences in Nashville reflect national trends.

In 2016, Deborah Sunter was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, working on electricity grid modeling when her work took her in an unexpected direction.

She was mining the massive trove of data behind Google's Project Sunroof, a website that helps homeowners figure out the costs and benefits of installing rooftop solar. (Rooftop solar refers to solar installations on top of buildings, usually homes or businesses, versus utility-scale solar farms built on vast tracts of land.)

Project Sunroof used Google Earth imagery to analyze more than 60 million buildings across all 50 states, noting which buildings already had solar panels on them. By studying where there already were solar panels, Sunter thought she might be able to predict where they could be adopted in the future.

She looked at U.S. census data for the places that Google had analyzed to see whether there was a correlation between population density and solar installations. To her surprise, population density wasn't among the most statistically significant factors. But race and ethnicity were.

The data revealed that black- and Hispanic-majority census tracts — neighborhoods where African Americans and Latinos make up at least 50% of the population — had much less rooftop solar than white-majority census tracts and even census tracts where there is no racial or ethnic majority.

This held true even after accounting for differences in household income and homeownership.

The 40-panel solar installation at Whites Creek High School in north Nashville was paid for by grants and donations and designed and built largely by students under Carney's supervision.
Andrea Hsu / NPR

Accounting for household income, black- and Hispanic-majority census tracts had installed 69% and 30% less rooftop solar compared with no-majority census tracts, while white-majority census tracts had installed 21% more.

Accounting for homeownership, black- and Hispanic-majority census tracts had installed 61% and 45% less solar compared with no-majority census tracts, while white-majority census tracts had installed 37% more.

Given how much solar prices have fallen in recent years, Sunter sees these disparities as a kind of environmental injustice, akin to the placement of a toxic landfill near a poor neighborhood.

"Equity isn't just who's bearing the disproportionate burdens of the world, but it's also who's missing out on the benefits," she says.

Now an assistant professor at Tufts University, Sunter is trying to figure out why minority communities are not adopting rooftop solar at the rates of white communities.

One hypothesis is that people of color are less likely to know anyone working in the solar industry.

The Solar Foundation, along with the Solar Energy Industries Association, published a diversity report earlier this year that found that executive leadership in solar companies is almost exclusively white men. It also found that women and African Americans are underrepresented in the industry. (The 2018 solar census found that 7.6% of 242,000 solar workers nationwide are African American.) The industry association has called on solar companies to diversify, calling it a business imperative.

Another hypothesis: People in minority communities just don't see a lot of solar around them.

"Essentially half of the black-majority neighborhoods didn't have a single installation of rooftop solar," Sunter says, decreasing the possibility of hearing about its benefits by word of mouth.

Compare that to a quarter of Hispanic-majority census tracts and only one-fifth of white-majority census tracts.

In Nashville, Carney doesn't know of any black household — aside from his own — that has installed solar. That troubles him, given what he knows about black neighborhoods in Nashville. Many residents, including his own grandmother, face high energy burdens, meaning they spend a large share of their income heating and cooling their homes.

"Bottom line is, the houses are old. And when the houses are old, they're less efficient," he says. "Insulation may have never been there, according to old codes that aren't as good as the codes are today. Or it's old and sagging and not doing what it used to do. Roofs may need to be updated. HVAC units [may be] out of whack."

Carney says all of this contributes to monthly utility bills running in the hundreds of dollars — and to a sense of helplessness.

"There is no conversation about what we can do. The conversation is always about how high my bill is. People almost get into a competition. It's like a sad competition" about who has the highest bill, he says.

Through advocacy work over the past few years at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and now at his own clean energy consulting business, Carney has tried to steer the conversation elsewhere.

And then there's his project at Whites Creek High School, a majority-black, majority-low-income public school that is a seven-minute drive from his home in north Nashville.

Carney examines the work of students from Whites Creek High School, in the Nashville school system.
Andrea Hsu / NPR

While a graduate student in 2015, Carney had the idea to build a solar array somewhere in the community as an educational model — a conversation starter of sorts. By providence, he says, the local high school turned out to be the perfect spot; it's home to several career academies aimed at giving students exposure to fields such as community health, automotive technology and alternative energy.

Over several years, Carney has given guest lectures about clean energy, accompanied students on field trips to Music City Solar, the local utility's community solar project, and led the most enthusiastic students through designing and building a solar array on a grassy slope beside their school, with costs covered by grants and donations totaling around $40,000.

Eighteen-year-old Daniel Van Clief spent much of his senior year working alongside Carney on the project, calculating the depth of the steel posts that hold up the frame, pouring concrete for those posts, building the frame and installing the 48-pound panels, a task that required no small amount of acrobatics. Seeing the solar array take shape, other students would drop by to ask questions and help out.

Daniel Van Clief, who graduated from Whites Creek High School in May, spent much of his senior year working alongside Carney learning the skills needed to become a solar installer.
Andrea Hsu / NPR

"We turned this field from nothing to something," says Van Clief with a hint of pride, giving Carney credit for inspiring him to take a leadership role. "He made me want to do this." The new graduate hopes to continue working with Carney.

"It's kind of cool, because it's like a reverse job shadow," says Trevor Johnston, who teaches agriculture and alternative energy at the high school. "The professionals come to you, and you learn the same skills as if you were doing it out in the field."

Carney's message to students goes beyond that. He talks a lot about job opportunities in clean energy and tells them they can absolutely take part.

"No one controls the sun," he says. "If someone could, they would, but they can't. Right now all you need is knowledge. You need to understand how it works. And you need to have faith in yourself to go after it."

Carney hopes he can help fill the mentorship void he experienced in Nashville.

"There's just no other way to get this to our communities," he adds.

Whites Creek High School seniors Daniel Van Clief (left) and Kelando Rogan (center) are joined by Michael MacMiller, a regional organizer for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. All three consider Carney a mentor.
Andrea Hsu / NPR

But he knows that rooftop solar is a hard sell in Tennessee right now. It's part of a bloc of Southern states that, unlike much of the country, has not adopted mandates promoting renewable energy.

And while the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally owned power supplier, once offered generous economic incentives for installing rooftop solar, it no longer does so.

"Our analysis shows utility-scale solar provides the best value for all of our customers across the Valley," Doug Perry, TVA's vice president for commercial energy solutions, said in a statement to NPR. "We can use our economies of scale to ensure it's reliable and at the lowest feasible cost. When we do that, everyone benefits, even those who can't afford or don't want to install personal solar panels."

So even with the dramatic drop in the price of solar installations — 70% over a decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association — and even with the help of the federal solar investment tax credit, putting solar on your roof in Tennessee remains a costly endeavor, in the tens of thousands of dollars.

"It's still an investment," Carney says. "And when you're in communities where people are hand to mouth, they don't have room for investment."

Still, Carney looks for signs of hope where he can find them. In early June, Nashville's Metro Council approved a trio of bills that supporters are hailing as the city's own Green New Deal. The legislation sets a 100% renewable energy target for the metro government, requires government vehicles to be zero-emissions by 2050 and also introduces new green building standards for government buildings.

"So there are still these seeds of what can happen tomorrow," Carney says. "But we've got to keep pressing."

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Solar technology is steadily getting better and cheaper, and lots of people are already seeing the benefits through lower electricity bills but not everyone. In black and Hispanic neighborhoods, there is far less solar than in white neighborhoods. NPR's Andrea Hsu went to Nashville to meet someone who's trying to change that.

JASON CARNEY: There's eight right there coming out - two more after that one.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: His name is Jason Carney. I caught up with him at Whites Creek High School just a few miles from his home in North Nashville. He was getting a group of teenagers to haul solar panels from a storage garage to a grassy slope on the edge of school property.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, we're going to carry it on our head.

HSU: This spring, Jason Carney was finishing up his dream project, his baby - a solar installation paid for by grants and donations, designed and built largely by students; students he's pretty sure wouldn't have otherwise been interested in renewable energy. He tells me about one of the kids, Daniel Van Clief.

CARNEY: He said the other day - he was like, man, this was just grass before. It was nothing, right? I mean, you can elaborate on that, Daniel. What were you saying?

DANIEL VAN CLIEF: We turned this field from nothing to something.

HSU: Van Clief spent much of his senior year working on this - everything from calculating how deep the posts for the frame had to be to cutting the steel and pouring cement and now climbing a ladder and throwing himself over the top of the whole thing to secure the panels.

CARNEY: Aren't you a dancer?

VAN CLIEF: I am also a dancer.

CARNEY: That's why you're super limber (laughter).

HSU: Now Van Clief wants to work as a solar installer. In fact, he wants to work just like this alongside his mentor.

CARNEY: Let's put the ladder here.

HSU: Jason Carney gets that. He savors being the mentor that he never had. When he was getting his start, he saw how few African Americans and other people of color were doing green energy work in Tennessee. In meetings and at conferences, he often found he was the only one. He's pretty used to it now. But at first...

CARNEY: It was very intimidating. It was very you don't belong here. That was the feeling.

HSU: This year, a nonprofit called The Solar Foundation put out a report that found executive leadership in solar companies to be almost exclusively white men. It also found women and African Americans to be underrepresented in the solar workforce. Deborah Sunter of Tufts University thinks that may be one reason minority communities have been slower to adopt solar. She's been leading the research into disparities around who's installing solar. She says people also get interested in solar when they see it on their neighbor's house. And in black neighborhoods, that's just not happening as much.

DEBORAH SUNTER: Essentially, half of the black-majority neighborhoods didn't have a single installation of rooftop solar.

HSU: Sunter sees this as a kind of environmental injustice not so different from, say, putting a toxic landfill next to a poor neighborhood.

SUNTER: Equity isn't just, who is bearing the disproportional burdens of the world? But it also is, who's missing out on the benefits?

HSU: That's Jason Carney's fear too. He says communities of color in Nashville spend a lot of their income heating and cooling their homes.

CARNEY: Bottom line is the houses are old. And when the houses are old, they're less efficient.

HSU: Think sagging insulation, roofs that need updating, HVAC units out of whack and a feeling of helplessness.

CARNEY: There is no conversation about what we can do. Conversation is always about how high my bill is, and people almost get into kind of a competition. It's like a sad competition, like my bill was 300 or my bill was $400. My bill's 425 not, you know, I put in insulation, and my bill is now $100. Well, yeah. I put solar on, and my bill's now $80. You know, that's the conversation on which communities of color could start having.

HSU: So Carney hopes the solar installation at Whites Creek High School will help start that conversation. Where it goes is another challenge. Tennessee, like most of the Southeast, has not adopted mandates around renewable energy. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which generates and supplies power for the region, no longer offers generous economic incentives for rooftop solar. So even though solar prices have fallen dramatically in recent years, it's still a lot of money upfront to put panels on your home - upwards of $10,000.

CARNEY: It's still an investment. You're probably not going to get benefit right now. It's going to come later. And when you're in communities where people are hand-to-mouth, they don't have room for investment.

HSU: Still, Carney looks for signs of hope wherever he can find them. Last month, Nashville's Metro Council passed what supporters have called the city's own Green New Deal. All government buildings will have to run on a 100% renewable energy by 2041, and they'll have to meet stricter green building standards. Carney thinks that could yield work opportunities in the near future.

VAN CLIEF: All right. Now it's the moment of truth.

HSU: Back at Whites Creek, Carney stands under a hot sun, watching his students hoist the last solar panel onto the steel frame. He takes a moment to appreciate all they've accomplished with this project and all the possibilities it represents.

CARNEY: No one controls the sun, you know? If someone could, they would. But they can't. Right now all you need is knowledge.

HSU: Knowledge, he says, and the faith to go after it.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.