Solar Panels Empower Low-Income Latino Communities: The Utilities Try to Spoil the Fiesta

When it comes to the sun, for Rosa Mayorga and her family, everything that glitters is indeed gold.
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When it comes to the sun, for Rosa Mayorga and her family, everything that glitters is indeed gold.

A few months ago, this Irvine, California, resident had solar panels installed on her rooftop, and ever since then, the sun shines on her home with special intensity.

"This is fabulous. Since I had them installed, we pay half of what we used to for our electricity," she proudly says. "Now we can use that money for things we could not afford before."

Mrs. Mayorga is one of the beneficiaries of the tremendous growth solar energy has experienced in California, whose assistance and development programs are the standard for the rest of the nation.

The system works as follows: For a down payment of zero dollars, a leasing company installs the panels on your rooftop and provides an exact assessment of much your monthly bill will be for a 20-year period, which will be substantially lower than what the utility charges. Each solar company offers a variety of plans for their clients. But they all result in significant savings in your energy bill.

Since 2007, in California, the installation of residential rooftop solar panels in low-income households has increased by 364 percent, and in 2011 two thirds of all installations took place in middle- and low-income neighborhoods. This, Mrs. Mayorga says, is "a blessing," not only for her but for her entire community.

But a dark cloud called corporate greed is threatening this bright situation. The big utilities consider the expansion of solar energy generated by their clients as a threat to their business model, which traditionally has relied on dirty, inefficient energy projects, such as gas, coal and nukes.

To undermine the growth of this threat to their virtual monopoly, these companies lobby state governments to limit the advantages of systems such as Mrs. Mayorga's. This took place recently when Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric y Pacific Gas & Electric put pressure on the Latino caucus of the California Legislature to pass new rates that would diminish the savings of energy consumers such as Mrs. Mayorga. These attacks on solar energy are not only taking place in California, but in other states, such as Arizona, Colorado and Georgia.

The big utilities, however, are swimming against a strong current because the explosive growth of the solar energy throughout the nation. In the US, every four minutes a solar system is installed, and by 2016 it will happen every 20 seconds. Back in 2006, it took place every 80 minutes.

Also, the cost of a solar panel has dropped by 80 percent since 2008, and wind energy has cut down its costs in half since 2009. This has helped replace the energy generated by all the coal-burning plants that have been retired in the country in the past five years. Moreover, for every dollar that is invested in clean energy, three times as many jobs are created than by investments in gas and oil.

"The sun is the blanket of the poor," says Mrs. Mayorga. It also is the gold that glitters on her rooftop.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

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