Solar Jobs: Growing at the Grassroots

For nearly a decade, first as governor of Colorado and now as the director of a clean energy policy group, I have been one of the many people working with state and federal officials to shape more sustainable energy and climate policies. It is a mission filled with the glacial pace of governments and constant competition with other priorities.

From time to time, however, I am reminded that much of the best work on America's necessary transition to a sustainable energy economy is being done at the grassroots level. The solar energy revolution is progressing community by community.

One of those moments occurred this week during a meeting convened by the Clinton Global Initiative (GCI), the entity best known for securing concrete commitments from business leaders, philanthropists and private organizations to invest time and money on initiatives that address pressing needs around the world.

At their fifth annual CGI America meeting -- held in Denver and focused on strengthening the U.S. economy -- CGI received commitments from several organizations for grassroots projects that demonstrate how solar energy creates good local jobs, alleviates energy poverty and cuts carbon emissions.

The solar-powered jobs engine is working across the United States. The latest census by the Solar Foundation found that the solar industry has created more than 705,000 jobs in companies that build, install, service and support solar energy equipment. Over five years, solar-related employment has increased by a remarkable 86 percent. More Americans work in the solar industry today than in the coal industry.

The latest commitments created through CGI focus particularly on giving low-income households access to community solar energy systems. For example, the Southeastern Ohio Public Energy Council committed to organize community-scale solar power generation and household energy efficiency programs in the heart of Appalachia.The project will operate initially in the city of Athens and in Athens County, OH, and serve households, businesses and schools. The Council anticipates that the program will serve 2,600 families while creating 120 permanent and 180 temporary jobs in Appalachia.

To make energy efficiency and solar power affordable, the Council will use a state program that allows homeowners to organize "power buying groups" with leverage to negotiate prices with suppliers. As a result, the Council expects that homeowners will install a variety of energy efficiency measures that will reduce their energy bills by 25 percent, on average. The energy savings will more than offset the cost of the efficiency improvements, giving families an immediate monthly savings on their bills, the equivalent of a tax-free monthly paycheck.

The Council was one of several organizations to step up with a plan to bring solar to underserved communities. Based in Pine River, MN., the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance pledged to train 120 people to deploy solar energy systems for low-income households where families often have to choose between paying their energy bills and affording other essentials. The Alliance calls it the "heat or eat" dilemma.

In two tribal areas and five economically depressed rural counties, the Alliance plans to show how community action agencies can become solar power producers that serve low-income households. The goal is to liberate 750 households from federal energy assistance and serve as a model for other communities.

Likewise, the National Housing Trust committed through CGI to help the owners of multi-family affordable housing units install and own solar equipment on buildings. That approach will make solar energy available to 10,000 residents. Where multiple buildings are located, the Trust will help establish shared solar energy systems, starting in Washington D.C., California, Minnesota and Maine.

And yet another organization, Standard Solar Inc., has demonstrated its commitment to moving Americans toward a clean energy economy by pledging to invest $52 million in innovative local applications of solar energy storage.

The projects mentioned above share two exceptional features. First, they focus on families who pay a disproportionate amount of their income for energy and who are unable to afford solar energy on their own. Second, they demonstrate an important way to make solar energy available to virtually everyone. In 2008, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that fewer than one-third of the residential rooftops in the United States are suitable for on-site solar systems. As governor in 2010, I signed the nation's first legislation to make community solar systems -- often called "shared solar" -- available to utility customers. These systems avoid the limitations of rooftop systems; they are sited where the sun shines and distributed close by to consumers.

These are the types of power systems the American people want. A Gallup poll in March found that 79 percent of Americans want more solar energy -- in fact, their preference for solar and wind energy ranks far ahead of coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear power.

The growing interest among utility customers to become power producers is challenging the 20th century utility business model of big central power plants and hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines. Utility executives tell me that the clean energy revolution is 10 years ahead of power companies while power companies are 10 years ahead of regulators. With projects like those presented to the CGI, local organizations and the communities they serve are ahead in the lead.

For those who work to spread the energy revolution to Washington and to state capitols, it is inspiring to see clean and renewable energy taking root in communities around the country. The deeper those roots grow, the less vulnerable American families will be to the "heat or eat" dilemma and to a lack of good local jobs. And the less vulnerable all of us will be to the risks of power outages, rising energy prices and global climate change.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in recognition of the latter's fifth meeting of CGI America (June 8-10 in Denver). This week, nearly 1,000 leaders from business, government, and civil society are coming together to develop solutions for economic growth, long-term competitiveness, and social mobility in the United States. For more information on CGI America, read here. To see all of the posts by authors in the series, read here.