As America finally begins to address alternatives to fossil fuels, solar and wind have become a mainstay in energy conversations. Idaho Power has proposed the “Clean Energy Your Way” program, allowing customers to subscribe to receive energy from solar panels that Idaho Power has constructed and owns.

While this is a great start, there are ways we can further improve the idea. Energy democracy has been a sought-after addition since IP’s news. Energy democracy is the idea that electrical power control should be shifted back to communities, not giving more power to the utility companies.

Traditional solar panel programs have been a largely elitist system. The average solar panel installation costs around $17,100 to start a 6-kW system. While this is likely manageable for middle-class homeowners, a large portion of the US is left out of this demographic. 35% of households in the United States rent their dwellings, with the median income amongst renters being $42,479. Allowing energy democracy would allow accessibility to renters who cannot afford solar or do not have the necessary housing to own panels. 

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), lower-income and vulnerable communities have often borne the brunt of energy consequences, such as fossil fuel pollution and construction within their neighborhoods. They are also more likely to have higher energy bills than other income brackets because these households are often unable to afford to update appliances to be more energy efficient. Though household technology is getting more efficient every year, these advancements tend to come with a steep price tag that is unavailable to many families.

These households also pay a more significant percentage of their annual income towards electricity than more affluent households, furthering the cycle of poverty.  Also, because of the high renting population, tenants cannot upgrade appliances because they do not own the property, and landlords are unlikely to upgrade a unit unless absolutely necessary. 

Community solar allows clean energy to be accessible to a non-traditional client- the one who doesn’t have a considerable roof or business to place it on or the deep pockets needed to finance solar panels. Utilities would also benefit; by providing smaller power-generating areas in more places, the grid would become more resilient. By working with communities, utilities foster better relationships and become a driving force in democratizing energy for all. It provides apartment dwellers, renters, and mobile home residents with a choice about their power. It’s also a step towards achieving environmental equity and justice.

An energy utility should not be a monopoly that citizens need to fight to receive the benefit; it should be attainable for all people, not just the wealthy. It’s time to break the cycle and put our power back in the hands of the people, both literally and figuratively.