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“Providing Solar Energy to the People: California Initiative Promotes Clean Power in Oakland”

Joseph Wang and his spouse have discovered a method for remaining warm and efficient in the colder nights of northern California by using layers of clothing.

Wang, who is 87 years old, shared in Mandarin that he and his wife, Meng Rou Lan, who is 84 years old, had been bundling up during the day and at night in order to save money on their electricity bill last winter. They also resorted to using two blankets. However, when they received a $130 electricity bill, they decided to limit their heater usage. Fortunately, due to a solar program funded by the state of California, their bill may decrease by as much as $40 each month.

Wang resides in St. Mary’s Gardens, an affordable housing community in Oakland, California that offers 100 units to low-income senior citizens.

St Mary’s Gardens is among the 100+ initiatives in California that have implemented solar panels through the government-funded Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (Somah) program. Beginning in July 2019, the state will allocate $100 million annually for this purpose. The program aims to produce 300 megawatts of energy from solar projects on low-income rental properties throughout the state by 2030 – equivalent to the output of a small nuclear power plant and enough to supply electricity to 150,000 families living in these buildings.

The program offers financial aid to individuals who own affordable housing complexes, as well as educational resources for tenants. Over 100 low-income rental buildings have successfully implemented solar panels through this initiative, with hundreds more expressing interest, according to Somah. The financial benefits gained from utilizing solar power directly support low-income tenants, and the program is specifically designed to benefit those living in the most vulnerable communities, who are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and the climate crisis. These communities can benefit from the government’s significant investments in clean energy.

Staci Givens, program manager of Somah, stated that their primary objective is to support underprivileged communities who often do not have a voice in this field.

A woman speaks into a mic before an audience of elderly people.

The state of California, known for its abundant sunshine and large size, has been a leader in promoting solar initiatives in response to the increasingly severe effects of climate change. Solar panels have gained popularity as a means of conserving energy, but have primarily benefitted wealthier areas. To address this inequality, the Biden-Harris administration has approved a $7 billion Solar for All program to be implemented in states nationwide.

Based on a report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, individuals with solar panels on their roofs in the US tend to be high-income earners. California has the largest number of households with rooftop solar, accounting for 50% of the national total. The general profile of those with solar panels consists of middle-aged, white individuals who primarily speak English, work in business or finance, and reside in rural areas, as reported by Berkeley Lab.

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According to Gideon Anders, he was initially unfamiliar with the details of solar panels when he learned about the Somah program. However, as a board member and treasurer of the St Mary’s Gardens Elderly Housing Limited Partnership, he and other members saw the potential benefits for the building and its residents and decided to install solar panels.

Anders stated that upon discovering the program and the generous incentives offered, they concluded it was an opportunity that they could not ignore.

Ayesha Abbasi, a representative of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (Apen), a group focused on environmental issues and activism in Oakland, California, met with the manager of St Mary’s Gardens building as part of her outreach efforts. Apen played a role in drafting the legislation that initiated Somah.

The clean energy program was well-suited for St Mary’s Gardens, a housing complex for low-income elderly individuals located near highways and a port diesel corridor.

An overhead view of the St Mary’s Gardens apartments, featuring solar panels on the rooftop.

The amount spent for implementing solar power at a location such as St Mary’s Gardens is approximately $345,000 and the process took three and a half years. Abbasi commented, “There was a significant amount of effort invested in ensuring the success of these projects.”

The state covered the entire installation cost for St Mary’s Gardens because the building does not own the solar panels. They have contracted with Sunrun, a solar power company, to maintain the panels for the next 20 years. According to Anders, each unit could save $30 to $40 a month once PG&E approves the installation and connects it to the grid.

The implementation of the solar panel initiative inspired the building owners to explore additional environmentally-friendly energy solutions. According to Anders, they have already enhanced the common area’s HVAC system by switching to an electric heat pump and replaced gas-powered water boilers with electric ones.

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Nonetheless, there are certain obstacles to overcome in order to have buildings adopt solar energy. According to Givens, one of the main issues is that a significant number of individuals lack the necessary expertise or personnel to effectively oversee a large-scale construction project. While Somah does offer support to building owners, it still relies on having a staff member available to oversee the process.

Additionally, property owners may be responsible for covering certain expenses, such as initial construction costs or lease fees, before receiving any rebates for installing and connecting solar panels.

After the solar panels are installed by contractors, they must wait for an inspection and connection to the grid by the electric company, which can potentially take up to eight months.

However, there are those who aim to not only provide financial gains for individuals and families, but also to aid in the closure of coal-fired power plants and the gradual mitigation of the consequences of the climate emergency.

“We must expand from individual rooftops to encompass a larger region, state, and even country in order to make a significant impact,” stated Mari Rose Taruc, the energy director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “While we begin at the level of a single roof, our ultimate goal is to see widespread adoption.”

The elderly residents of St Mary’s Gardens expressed their desire for a cleaner environment due to the negative impact of wildfire smoke on air quality. “Poor air pollution is especially harmful to us seniors,” stated YunHao Zhang, who lives at St Mary’s Gardens. This was conveyed in Cantonese by Sky Liang, a community organizer from Apen, acting as a translator.

A resident expressed her desire for the program to assist other senior citizens.

Meng Rou Lan states, “We are fortunate to experience the benefits of this renewable energy, but there are numerous underprivileged senior citizens who could also reap its advantages.”

  • This article was written in collaboration with Oakland Voices, a journalism program run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. The program trains residents of Oakland to share the stories of their communities.

Source: theguardian.com