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Green Building News

Research Finds Racial Disparities in Solar Panel Distribution

Black and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer solar panels than mostly white neighborhoods, study finds

Data gleaned from Google's Project Sunroof and the U.S. Census helped researchers learn how a neighborhood's ethnic makeup affects the deployment of rooftop solar systems. Image Credit: Google Sunroof

Although the rooftop solar market in the U.S. has grown by roughly 50% a year since 2012, not everyone is reaping the benefits, a new study says.

Writing in the journal Nature Sustainability, researchers said rooftop photovoltaic systems showed “significantly less” adoption in black and Hispanic neighborhoods even after differences in household income and homeownership were accounted for. (The full study is behind a pay wall, but you can read the abstract here.)

“Although the opportunities [solar] affords for clean, reliable power are transformative, the benefits might not accrue to all individuals and communities,” the authors said.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley combined data from Google’s Project Sunroof and the U.S. Census to reach their conclusions. Project Sunroof provides high-resolution satellite imagery showing the location of rooftop solar panels, part of a package that lets homeowners estimate how much rooftop space they have for solar panels and how much electricity a system would hypothetically produce.

Here’s what researchers found:

  • For the same median household income, census tracts where black and Hispanic residents were the majority installed less rooftop PV than areas where they were not a majority by 69% and 30% respectively. White-majority census tracts installed 21% more solar.
  • When correcting for home ownership, black- and Hispanic-majority areas installed less PV compared with no majority areas by 61% and 45% respectively. White majority neighborhoods  installed 37% more solar.

In an article about the study, Scientific American spoke with study co-author Daniel Kammen who said he wasn’t surprised that race and ethnicity were important factors in solar deployment. Kammen, however, said he had expected the effect would be reduced significantly when researchers controlled for income. “But alas,” he said, “it was not.”

How solar installations spread

The authors note that rooftop solar increases in two ways. One is through “top-down” approaches, such as public policy and alternative financing that makes the purchase of PV possible. The second are “bottom-up” approaches, such as the “social diffusion effect” in which someone who installs PV on their home influences neighbors to do the same.

A number of state and federal programs have been created to help  low-income people add solar. But programs that specifically target racial and ethnic minorities are still missing. This prompted researchers to study what they call the “energy justice landscape” of small-scale solar deployment.

“We hypothesize that PV adoption is not hindered by economic resources nor property ownership only,” they write. They add that additional demographic variables, such as race, can provide insights into how and why solar is adopted and improve top-down efforts that help it spread.

In the case of black communities in particular, researchers found that 47% of black-majority census tracts had no existing solar installations, which in some cases was more than double the rate for white-, Asian- and Hispanic-majority neighborhoods. The lack of these “seed” installations can help slow the spread of solar.

Lack of diversity in the workforce

Although the authors don’t offer an explanation for the disparities, they suggest that a lack of racial diversity in the renewable energy workforce could be part of the reason.

“The lack of racial diversity is particularly pronounced in management and senior executive positions in solar firms, where in the United States over 80% of these positions are held by white people,” the report says.

2017 report on diversity in the U.S. solar industry by The Solar Foundation that said people of color make up only a small percentage of the U.S. solar workforce. Seventeen percent are Hispanic or Latino and just 7% are black.

Further, fewer men of color earned wages in the highest pay bracket than did white males. Only 4% of women of color fell into the highest wage bracket, those earning more than $75 an hour. People of color were more likely to have mid-level positions rather than work as managers, directors, or presidents.

“The root causes of the differences between black- and Hispanic-majority census tracts are difficult to predict and fully explain,” authors of the Nature Sustainability write, “and can also have social-psychological attributions that require further validation.”

They add, however, that when communities of color initially get a few solar installations, deployment significantly increases.

“These results,” they said, “suggest that appropriately ‘seeding’ racial and ethnic minority communities may mitigate energy injustice in rooftop PV adoption.”

19 Comments

  1. John Clark | | #1

    Did they adjust for the ratio of income : home value or income : home size? Adjusting for income isn't a good indicator when debt service is unknown.

    I'm going to bet it's not a question of diversity.

  2. Lance Peters | | #2

    “mitigate energy injustice”

    Wow. Seriously? Who comes up with this nonsense? Injustice? GBA should set higher standards for what they’re willing to post.

    Perhaps this is just low-grade click-bait...

  3. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Lance,
    Analysts may critique the research methods and statistical analysis that led to the conclusions summarized here, but short of a cogent argument undermining the research method, I'm not going to join the critique. Anyone who thinks that "energy injustice" doesn't affect African-Americans to a greater degree than white Americans isn't paying attention -- whether or not the research methodology summarized here is iron-clad.

    1. Eric Habegger | | #4

      Martin, we tend to disagree but you are spot on here. And I'm glad you said this. When one receives advantages in life it is all too easy to sit back and assume they are all deserved. In fact it is surprisingly easy for that feeling to come as naturally as breathing to someone who was born with certain advantages.

    2. Lance Peters | | #5

      Sorry Martin, the article claims:

      "...rooftop photovoltaic systems showed “significantly less” adoption in black and Hispanic neighborhoods even after differences in household income and homeownership were accounted for. "

      Looking at this from a purely logical perspective, this means my black co-worker who makes the same money I do and owns their house like I do has a statistically higher chance of CHOOSING not to install solar on their house. I don't see how you can read this any other way.

      You said:

      "Anyone who thinks that "energy injustice" doesn't affect African-Americans to a greater degree than white Americans isn't paying attention..."

      In the broader sense I don't disagree with you and most people wouldn't (I hope), BUT, when this article removes income and home ownership as variables the argument changes completely. The article is referring to people who are on equal financial grounds, meaning that black and Hispanic families who are living equally comfortably as their white neighbors are choosing to install less solar. Why is this? Who knows... maybe they're investing more for their retirement or their kids education, driving nicer cars, saving more for a rainy day... who knows and who cares?

      In the context of this article, declaring "energy injustice" for blacks and Hispanics makes no more sense than me declaring an "Asian food injustice" to white people because they eat less stir-fry.

      Then there's the "seeding" part. Does it make any sense to incentivize solar PV installations for people simply because of their race or skin color? Once again, why should my black co-worker have his PV installation incentivized when they make the same money I do, pay the same taxes I do, and own their house like I do? Sorry Martin, but that right there is the very definition of both injustice and racism.

      For the record, I'm about the least racist person you'll come across. Personally I think racism is pathetic. I absolutely love Morgan Freeman's take on racism from his 60 Minutes interview from 2005:

      WALLACE: How are we going to get rid of racism until …?

      FREEMAN: Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man. And I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman. You’re not going to say, “I know this white guy named Mike Wallace.” Hear what I’m saying?

      I agree with Morgan. Let's stop talking about it.

      1. Antonio Oliver | | #15

        Any black man who has Morgan Freeman money could rightly afford to declare himself unlocked from how other people see him. Freeman's statement is not super uncommon for black people who have attained a certain level of wealth in America. Were his name Morgan Smith, and were he a black man from a MEDIAN (not average) income household, it's very unlikely he would have the luxury of saying "stop calling me a black man." The truth is that long before a person of color gets to Morgan Freeman level of wealth, the people in his social circles stop seeing him in the same way they see a MEDIAN income Morgan Smith, and by the way this includes other black people. Freeman's wealth and fame far outweigh his ethnicity as a social status indicator. Morgan Freeman is no doubt above the 1% level of wealth in this country, with all the privileges that come with that level of wealth.

        So, no. Let's not stop talking about it as long as there is vast disagreement on the fundamentals of how ethnicity and socioeconomic status affects how one experiences being American. If ever there is statistically no difference between ethnicity groups, then there will actually be nothing to talk about, and I will agree with Freeman that we can "stop calling [him] a black man."

  4. Trevor Lambert | | #6

    I agree with Lance. All this study shows is that given the same economic conditions, these minorities choose not to install PV solar. Why? Probably cultural/peer influence, but regardless the exact reasons it's not a justice issue. Unless you are saying they are being turned away or actively discouraged. The talk about percentage of the solar workforce and percentage in high paying positions is almost completely off topic. They already corrected for income and wealth differences, so what are they suggesting? That a middle class black guy is refusing to install solar panels because he looked at the skin colour of the company CEO? If people want to start an awareness campaign to try to convince minorities to install solar panels, great. Giving them rebates or lower prices based on their race? That is textbook racism.

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    The researchers controlled for homeownership and income, but not for wealth. The average white family in the U.S. has 7.7 times the wealth of the average black family. (See "The Ever-Growing Gap.")

    Needless to say, it's much easier for a wealthy family to pay for a PV array than it is for a family with little wealth, even if both families have the same income.

    Of course, some Americans don't care about racial disparities in wealth. But I think we should care.

    1. Lance Peters | | #8

      Martin, I hate to seem argumentative, but you are speaking about average white vs average black when this particular study is specifically stating that they are not. The article is looking at families of similar income and home ownership status which implies families of similar wealth.

      The way I read it, that’s the main point of this article; to try and determine why, given families of similar wealth, do blacks and Hispanics spend statistically less of their income on solar PV than whites do. Then they call it “energy injustice” and suggest subsidies to “fix” the “problem” which rubs me the wrong way.

      1. User avater GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #10

        Lance,
        Wealth and income are quite different. Black families with an annual income of $100,000 have much, much, less wealth than white families with an annual income of $100,000. There are lots of studies that back this up.

        1. Lance Peters | | #16

          Well, I guess I just don't identify with being "wealthy" then, because I certainly wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I'm just an average white dude who grew up in a small town, finished high school and started working at a lumber yard.

          I was living with my Mom paying room and board (my parents divorced when I was 12) then paid/borrowed my way through college, graduating at 25 years old.

          I went though a bunch of jobs, starting pretty low on the ladder. I'm doing OK now almost 20 years later, but jeez... my life story is pretty sad now that I think about it. Maybe some free solar panels would help me out. ;-)

    2. Trevor Lambert | | #12

      You have to be careful when you look at averages. The averages include people with billions of dollars. Bill Gates' and Jeff Bezos' wealth doesn't help a white carpenter more than a black carpenter. If you took all Gates', Bezos' and the Walton family's money and give it to one black guy, that would bring the average black family's wealth up a lot. Would that make the world more just?

      Yes, of course it's easier for a wealthier family to pay for a PV array. No study was needed to point this out, and that's not the case the study was trying to make (if the article is a fair representation, which I am taking for granted). We can all agree that white people, on average, have more wealth than black people in the US. What, particularly, does that have to do with solar PV arrays? It's a much bigger topic that I freely admit I don't know much about, but would say belongs somewhere else than a green building forum.

  6. Jon R | | #9

    Residential scale solar is typically a horribly inefficient use of funds (utility scale is about 2x better on a macro basis). The article is suggesting a fix for the wrong group!

  7. Keith Gustafson | | #11

    I think Martin makes a good point on wealth, having an equivalent job and income does not mean the same wealth. Wealth means being certain you are going to make the mortgage for 20 years, thus investing in infrastructure.

    example: I have been in business for going on 30 years. 2 years in my father lent me 10k to buy equipment. The difference between having a parent who can write a check and those who cannot is wealth. As a 30 year old white guy with good income I could not get a loan from a bank for such a thing. What happens if I don't get that money?
    Well, we don't know.

    The other thing that occurs to me is where are solar panels located?
    mostly I would think single family separate houses, mostly suburbs, related to population anyway. Places people of color were excluded from for decades. Look up the history of Levittown for example. So this imparts a skew in the census designated places I would think

    I would not be surprised if you filtered it to minorities in single family suburban homes that the differences were smaller.

  8. 88Clayton | | #13

    Let’s consider for a moment the fact that out of the relatively few people that even care about building green, such as utilizing PV arrays, the vast majority of this small population chunk are White. A sample of GBA membership would confirm this.

    Next up on the list.... “Research study finds gender disparity in NFL Network subscription distribution.” This is broadcast sports injustice.

    1. Joshua Salinger | | #18

      Please see this list of published studies that finds that minority populations actually care more about environmental issues than whites. This is a common misconception, but it has simply been borne out as a fact.

      https://www.cdeinspires.org/resources/

  9. 88Clayton | | #14

    Everyone gets what they pay for. There is no “injustice” in this. The injustice would be race-based programs to give upgrades to people based on color while somebody like myself has to slave away for months to get the same product.

  10. Joshua Salinger | | #17

    This is a really important topic, and thanks to Scott for posting it and Martin for continuing this oftentimes difficult conversation. I feel like part of the problem is 'Institutional Racism' which refers specifically to the ways in which institutional polices and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups. The institutional polices may never mention any racial group, but their effect is to create advantages for Whites and oppression and disadvantage for people from groups classified as People of Color. There is a great article by Shawn Fischer Hesse in TrimTab titled 'Ending Trickle Down Equity' which addresses this from an architect's perspective. This issue is of paramount importance, as if we truly wish to make an impact on the built environment we absolutely need to be inclusive of P.O.C. (if for no other reason) as they will be a majority in the U.S. in a few years time. As allies in this movement, we cannot continue to not be mindful of the advantages we have given to us as a society and actively work to resolve this injustice in our work.

    I was glad to see this article highlight these inequities, and glad to see this conversation unfold. We need more of this conversation in forums such as this.

    It is also good to remember, as Jay Smooth (youtube him) says (paraphrasing here): Racial justice work is like dental hygiene- one needs to constantly work on cleaning up the plaque build up, and once your teeth are clean, they don't just stay that way- one has to work on maintaining them.

    https://trimtab.living-future.org/trim-tab/issue-36/ending-trickle-down-equity/

    1. Trevor Lambert | | #19

      Can you please explain the institutional policy or policies that have led to the alleged justice inequality of solar PV panel installation?

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