Remember back when the music you listened to was largely determined by which CDs (we know, LPs and tapes too!) were available at the music store, or which bands you heard on the radio? Compare that to now, when the Internet pretty much imploded that business model— even on our phones, we can quickly discover and listen to nearly any band or artist.
We are living in the age of decentralization, and it’s affecting everything from music to energy. And while energy is in a whole different, ahem, genre, than music, something similar is happening to the way we get our electricity. And in this case, that something is called renewable energy.
A Renewable Power Shift
Across the US, if you’re plugged in and drawing power, most likely you’re pulling juice from the local and regional electrical grids, which are being fed by large electrical utility plants. Between the actual electrical plant and the watts being used to brown your toast, there are millions (in some cases billions) of dollars of infrastructure; utility companies; federal, state and regional regulators; and a thicket of rules, taxes and pricing structures so dense you could make an actual raft out of them.
Compare that to someone charging a laptop from roof-mounted solar panels. After the cost of the panels, there’s no expense for generating 100% of their energy directly from the sun, with no middleman. A different paradigm, right? We’ve heard plenty about the goal to get to 100% renewable energy, and now there are studies showing that we can do that by 2050 in the US: we’ll need a broad mix of energy supplies, from hydro to wind, and, a lot of solar power. Add in game-changing battery technologies like the “Powerpack” being developed by Tesla, and it’s realistic to imagine many houses and communities that can generate, and store, all the power they need without connecting to the grid.
But Who Has Access?
Going 100% renewable will require major shifts in energy production and policy— a perfect time to reboot old social and economic inequities. But in order to get from the “decentralization” of power production to the “democratization” of energy, we’ve got to make sure we level the playing field for access to technology, like solar panels. And forward thinkers, like Bernie Sanders, already have a plan to get that right.
Sanders notes that while there’s enough solar capacity in the US right now to power 4.3 million homes, lower-income families that could benefit from electrical bill reductions (and eventual elimination) aren’t getting the chance to plug in. Sanders’ Low Income Solar Act would jumpstart access by offering loans and grants that cover part of the upfront cost of residential solar arrays for low-income families. The Act also includes support for “solar gardens,” or community solar facilities that whole neighborhoods can tie into, and a focus on developing solar where there’s little to none of this technology— including Appalachia, Native American tribal lands and Alaskan native communities.
Renewable Should Also Mean Equitable
As we’ve seen in California, climate justice means going beyond simply solving climate change and looking at who and how it will impact the most. Sander’s Low Income Solar Act plugs low-income communities into electricity that’s not just sustainable environmentally, but offers the economic feedback of keeping investments within the local communities. And we’re happy to point out that Sanders is not alone in this push. President Obama recently announced his own program to boost national renewable energy access and use, including a goal to install 300 megawatts of renewable energy in federally subsidized housing by 2020.
While we keep the pressure on for 100% renewable energy by 2050, we need to keep our eye on how we reach that goal. Renewable energy is our springboard into a truly revolutionary future. Let’s make sure everyone is on board when we jump.