From Green Power to Economic Empowerment

Michelle Moore

CEO at Groundswell

Michelle Moore is CEO of Groundswell, a nonprofit that builds community power to connect low and moderate income communities with clean energy through place-based programs in equitable community solar, affordable wind power, and energy efficiency.

A social entrepreneur and former White House official with roots in rural Georgia, Michelle is a relentless agent for change. Her accomplishments range from helping build the global green building movement to leading the sustainability team for the Obama Administration.

What does the sustainability movement look like from the perspective of economic equity? You might measure your response in how much affordable housing is LEED certified, or whether there’s a cost premium for green. But if you’re a family living in poverty paying 10 percent of your total income for dirty power, is the promise of sustainability accessible to you?

That’s the question facing an estimated 16 million Americans who are paying more than 10 percent of their household income for electricity. The reality today is that working families pay more to keep the lights on despite falling prices and growing affordable clean-energy options. This burden isn’t uniformly shared by region or by race. Forty-six percent of all households with high energy burdens are in the South, and 50 percent of all families struggling with disproportionately high power bills are African American. In many cities, the challenge is even more acute. In Jacksonville, Florida, for example, 14.5 percent of households living in poverty are paying $200 or more per month for electricity. So what can we do?

First, it’s important to understand that, while good public policy is an essential part of the solution, it’s not the only answer. There’s an important leadership role for the market, too, because new clean energy technologies tend to follow typical technology adoption curves. The visionaries behind LEED understood this dynamic for sustainable building practices, which has been fundamental to USGBC’s successful strategy for market transformation. New clean energy technologies debut at the upper end of the market and are purchased by early adopters who can afford the premium. Then, as adoption grows, prices come down, and the once-new technology becomes economically accessible to everyone.

The thing is, energy isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. We can’t afford the social cost of waiting for the benefits of affordable clean energy to trickle down to those in need.

Nearly 50 percent of America hasn’t been able to switch to solar because they are struggling financially and don’t qualify for financing, don’t own their roof, or don’t have a roof in the right location. Community solar radically expands access to affordable clean energy by allowing anyone to purchase locally produced solar power from a centrally located solar array.

Today, there are only about 100 community solar projects in operation around the country, but that number is about to boom. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, community solar is on its way to becoming the single largest source of distributed renewable energy in America—outpacing rooftop solar and providing an up to $8 billion investment opportunity. The problem is that most community solar models have the same barriers to access as rooftop solar.

Groundswell is developing an equitable community solar program that works for working families—complementing market leadership with nonprofit innovation. Through our partnership with Sustainable Capital Advisors, the model takes consumer credit scores off the table as an obstacle. It’s one among a growing vanguard of solutions that will give everyone a seat at the abundant clean-energy table.

Community solar promises to be a game changer that means your next green building project could provide access to affordable clean energy to your neighbors who need it most.