Study: The Disparity Of Rooftop Solar Deployment By Race

A new study from researchers at Tufts University and the University of California, Berkeley, says fewer rooftop solar installations exist in African-American and Hispanic-dominant neighborhoods than in white-dominant neighborhoods, even when controlling for household income and homeownership.

The study was published today in the journal Nature Sustainability. According to the study, although solar energy is a popular, cost-effective and sustainable source of energy that can be deployed at large, the deployment of rooftop projects has been uneven.

Solar power is crucial to meeting the climate goals presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but we can and need to deploy solar more broadly so that it benefits all people, regardless of race and ethnicity,” says Deborah Sunter, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the School of Engineering at Tufts and the study’s lead author. “ Solar energy can be a resource for climate protection and social empowerment.”

The researchers combined data from Google’s Project Sunroof on existing rooftop solar installations across the U.S. with demographic data, including household income, homeownership, and ethnicity and race, from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The Project Sunroof data includes information on more than 60 million rooftops and almost 2 million solar installations.

“Advances in remote sensing and in Big Data science enable us not only to take a unique look at where solar is deployed but also to combine that with census and demographic data to chart who gets to benefit from the solar energy revolution,” says Sergio Castellanos, Ph.D., a research faculty at UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group and the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE). “This information allows us to think more deeply about the effectiveness of current policies and approaches to accelerating solar PV deployment.”

The study found that for the same median household income, black-majority census tracts – or neighborhoods – have installed 69% less rooftop PV than census tracts where no single race or ethnicity makes up the majority (no-majority), and that Hispanic-majority census tracts have installed 30% less rooftop PV than no-majority census tracts. Meanwhile, white-majority census tracts have installed 21% more rooftop PV than no-majority census tracts.

When correcting for homeownership, black- and Hispanic-majority census tracts have installed less rooftop PV compared to no-majority tracts by 61% and 45%, respectively, while white-majority census tracts installed 37% more, the study says.

The study’s authors say more research is needed to help determine the root causes of the differences. They note that the findings could be useful in developing better and more inclusive energy infrastructure policy and outcomes, including as part of the evolving Green New Deal and programs at the state and federal level.

“Our work illustrates that while solar can be a powerful tool for climate protection and social equity, a lack of access or a lack of outreach to all segments of society can dramatically weaken the social benefit,” says Daniel Kammen, Ph.D., former science envoy for the U.S. State Department and current professor and chair of the Energy and Resources Group, professor in the Goldman School of Policy, and professor of Nuclear Engineering at UC Berkeley.

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