Our Clean Energy Moment Is Now

The United States is having a clean energy moment.

From the White House, to American households, to corporations and civil rights organizations -- the promotion of more widespread adoption of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, is being touted far and wide.

As we continue to embrace this new energy economy, Americans have much to gain. The renewable energy sector has the potential to create new jobs and cleaner energy, so that more Americans are being served and participating in these exciting times.

Think solar. Solar is a clean energy source that has experienced explosive growth in recent years. In 2013, solar installations were valued at $13.7 billion, compared to $11.5 billion in 2012 and $8.6 billion in 2011. And while solar accounts for just over one percent (1.13 percent) of U.S. electric capacity, it is experiencing one of the highest growth margins compared to other renewable energy sources -- up from 0.22 percent just four years ago.

With prices for solar photovoltaic (PV) systems markedly declining in recent years -- the growth is in both rooftop systems, which has the most number of installations and large-scale systems that actually produce the most amount of electricity. Solar is offering many American households with a clean energy option, which is great. However, it is still not within reach for all Americans -- particularly minority, low and fixed-income communities.

A recent report by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) eloquently underscores this unfortunate dynamic and highlights the urgent need for policies that can yield more inclusive and equitable outcomes in the energy sector, including solar. NBCSL persuasively argues that this must be a priority for policymakers at every level of government because the clean energy goals -- to which we all should aspire -- are often based on policies that have a negative impact on the very communities that need help. Many of these policies seem to further entrench, rather than reverse historical energy inequities that have plagued working families, minorities and low-income folks for far too long.

Our goal at NBCSL is to ensure that clean energy alternatives, including rooftop solar, are available to all communities. This requires the environmental and solar community to work alongside groups like NBCSL to achieve common clean energy goals and ensure greater equity and consumer choice for all Americans. In its report, NBCSL notes that there are many state-level programs that incentivize the installation of rooftop solar panels on homes, but the upfront costs for these systems are prohibitive for many households with incomes ranging from $10,000 to $40,000. This is one area where we can all work together to ensure that the solar option is within reach for all Americans.

The need for concerted action is compelling.

As NBCSL observes, those with annual pre-tax incomes below $50,000 devote more than double their share of income to pay for energy than those with incomes over that threshold. This share rises exponentially as annual incomes decrease. Federal programs like the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), originally established to help ease these burdens for low- income households, have been cut numerous times over the last few years leaving millions without much-needed aid. And anyone on the East Coast this week knows how much this type of assistance is needed.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, utility-scale solar capacity is "expected to increase by more than 60 percent" between now and 2016. With utility-scale solar power positioned to meet the needs of more consumers, this is a solution that should be supported by the entire solar community. However, it is incumbent upon Public Service Commissions to ensure that these projects are affordable and that costs are spread evenly so that all consumers have the opportunity to participate and benefit from utility-run, solar energy programs.

Equally important is updating outdated energy policies that are preventing continued progress within the clean energy sector, including solar. Net metering reform is a perfect example. The more solar customers that pay zero every month for using the grid results in more non-solar customers being left to shoulder the costs associated with maintaining the electric grid infrastructure -- the poles, transmission lines and wires that everyone, even rooftop solar owners, use. This needs to change.

We must ensure that in the rush to embrace clean energy, proposed policies and programs are not yielding unfair outcomes for poor and vulnerable communities.

Not only should we seek to achieve energy equity for all consumers, we also need to support diversity and inclusion efforts, and ensure that this is a priority for today's emerging, clean energy sector. And this push must include promoting and fostering greater minority business ownership within the industry and equipping more minority workers with the skills needed to participate in this new energy economy.

This week, the American Association of Blacks in Energy and Hispanics In Energy will be hosting their National Energy Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. Civil rights leaders such as National Urban League President, Marc Morial, will be discussing the importance of energy equity and workforce diversity in the clean energy sector. I will also be in attendance, sharing my thoughts on this very important issue.

In short, it is critical that we work together to seize these opportunities and make sure that we can all benefit from the enormous promise of renewable energy. The NBCSL report does more than raise the issue -- it offers solutions on how we can ensure equity in energy policies. Those who stand to gain the most should not be the ones who are paying the most but getting the least. President Obama should be commended for helping to orient America's attention and resources around critical environmental and renewable energy goals. Now, it is time for our policymakers to strike the right balance so we can move forward in lockstep toward a new, clean energy future.

Senator Catherine Pugh is a Member of the Maryland Senate. She also serves as President of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.