Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the air pollution and greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels to produce energy. In New York City, a study found that air pollution contributed to at least 2,700 premature deaths annually, and studies show that people of color bear the brunt of it. Air pollution also proved to be a key factor in COVID-19 mortality rates, with people of color again bearing the brunt of it. And greenhouse gases cause global warming, which exacerbates the environmental, financial, political, and social barriers that exist within these communities. Energy produced from renewable resources like solar can help reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions while providing significant cost savings for these communities, which historically spend a greater portion of their income on energy bills.
In 2016, WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT) partnered with Solar One and the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) to launch Solar Uptown Now (SUN), a program designed to bring solar energy to affordable housing in Northern Manhattan and create local jobs by training unemployed and underemployed members of the community to do the installations as part of WE ACT’s Worker Training program. To achieve this, SUN targeted Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) cooperatives, which make up the bulk of New York City multi-family affordable housing that is owned by the occupant. HDFC owners typically have a voice in their energy choices, and there is a high density of these buildings in Northern Manhattan.
SUN became the first successful solar purchasing program specifically for multi-family affordable housing, where the barriers to solar adoption are greatest and the cost savings are most needed. As of March 2020, the program has installed solar panels on the roofs of 11 HDFC buildings in Northern Manhattan, annually producing 415 KW-DC of renewable energy while avoiding 802 pounds of nitrogen oxide, a leading source air pollution and a contributor to global warming. By offsetting the electricity needed for the common areas of these buildings, the program saved residents an estimated $61.7 thousand in the first year and an estimated $1.9 million over the 25-year lifetime of the installations. More than 100 members of the community were trained as certified solar panel installers, opening a pathway for them to build careers in the emerging green economy and drawing comparisons to the Green New Deal.
However, only six of those workers were offered jobs, which was the minimum stipulated in the contract with the company handling the installations. This mirrored the challenge that the program’s other certified solar installers were experiencing in their search for green jobs. According to a 2019 study, of the 242,000 solar workers nationwide, only 7.6 percent are black or African-American. Compare that to the fact that black or African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the total national workforce according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it is clear that the solar industry has a diversity problem.
In addition, to make SUN an example of a true just transition, securing entry-level jobs is only the first step. To fully realize the economic benefits of the green economy, people of color need to secure an ownership stake in the solar and other renewable energy companies that power their communities.
In 2019, 10 WE ACT members who graduated from our Worker Training program, all trained in solar installation, came together to form a solar cooperative under the guidance of WE ACT’s Director of Organizing Charles Callaway, who is also in charge of both the Worker Training program and SUN. And to gain the skills they would need to create and operate a successful cooperative, they all attended the Green Worker Cooperatives’ Co-Op Academy in the Bronx.
In 2020, Solar Uptown Now Services (SUNS), as the solar cooperative is now called, was focused on finalizing its business plan, establishing itself as a Limited Liability Corporation, and developing a membership manual. SUNS also completed its first installation that year, installing a 200-kW solar farm in Croton, New York. And in 2021, the cooperative worked as a subcontractor on a 4-MW installation in Cortland, New York.
The cooperative continues to look for solar installation projects, with a focus on on affordable housing units in Northern Manhattan and throughout the greater New York metropolitan area. Those interested in learning more or hiring the cooperative can visit the SUNS website.
WE ACT will continue to serve as an incubator for the cooperative, which plans to hire graduates of WE ACT’s Worker Training program as it continues to grow. And SUNS hopes to serve as a template for other solar cooperatives serving low-income communities, providing a pathway for sustainable ownership in the emerging green economy.