When we talk about solar, we often focus on solar’s environmental benefits and its potential to push us closer to 100 percent clean energy. But community owned solar can also alleviate the high energy burdens faced by low-income customers as well as help correct historic energy injustices felt by low-income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities.    

The energy burden

In a strict sense, ‘energy burden’ is defined as the percentage of income that an individual spends on electric utilities. For example, if you make $50,000 per year and spend $1,200 per year on electricity bills ($100 per month), your energy burden is 2.4 percent. Although many Idaho customers have a low energy burden because our electricity is relatively cheap, there are still over 33,000 Idahoan households that make less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level ($13,000 for a family of four) and spend 20 percent of their annual income on electricity. 

Energy burden extends beyond just income spent on electric bills. Our country’s energy system has historically placed the harms of electricity production on low-income and communities of color, while ensuring that the financial benefits of that production go primarily to the wealthy. For example, electricity production from coal and gas creates many harmful pollutants that affect public health. Across the country, low-income communities of color are much more likely to live near these polluting plants and are thus more likely to be harmed by the pollution these plants produce. In Idaho, much of our electricity comes from hydro generation. While this power is technically clean, strong evidence shows that these dams are pushing wild salmon and steelhead toward extinction. Because salmon are an important cultural resource and traditional food source to indigenous Tribes across the Pacific Northwest, this energy generation is having huge negative impacts on indigenous communities At the same time that these low-income communities and communities of color are experiencing these burdens and paying a larger percentage of their income on electricity, wealthy shareholders of utilities are profiting from electric infrastructure. 

The Community Owned Solar solution

Community owned solar helps solve the energy burden problem. Because of falling costs, solar is often a cheaper alternative to traditional power generation sources, and it can lower the cost of electricity for low-income communities. Solar is also clean and emits none of the harmful pollutants that impact public health. 

Most importantly, community owned solar is owned by the community and not by wealthy, out-of-state investors. Individuals who have historically and systemically been excluded from capital markets can now reap the financial benefits of the infrastructure investments that provide them with clean power. 

In addition, community owned solar can be structured in such a way as to provide direct benefits to low-income and BIPOC customers. For example, Oregon’s community solar program requires that developers set aside a certain portion of their solar subscriptions for low-income customers and the state provides subsidized subscriptions for qualifying individuals. In Minnesota, community owned solar projects like Shiloh Temple have provided jobs and training for individuals from communities of color that were heavily underrepresented in the solar industry. 

Bring Community Owned Solar to Idaho

Community owned solar has the potential to transform our communities and our electric grid for the better. The mechanics of a community owned solar program may feel complex, but the underlying point is clear: We want clean, reliable power that keeps the financial benefits of electric generation in our communities. 

Help us tell Idaho Power that it should work with community groups to develop a community owned solar program. Sign our petition here and submit a comment to Idaho Power. 

Check out our last two blogs for a deeper dive into the benefits and mechanics of community owned solar. You can also learn more about community owned solar with our factsheet, or register for our May 10 webinar.