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Environment

This Brilliant Program Installs Solar Panels for Free for Low-Income Residents

AP Photo/Bob Edme

Renewable energy created jobs nearly 17 times faster than the rest of the economy in 2016, yet a common argument against the industry is that it costs traditional energy jobs, harming more workers and families than it benefits.

A new initiative in Washington is aiming to put this myth to rest by showing that renewable energy not only creates jobs, but also improves society as a whole.

Solar Works DC is training hundreds of local residents — mostly young, low-skilled people —  how to become solar technicians.

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The trainees are learning by installing solar panels on homes in the area — at no cost to the homeowner.

“It’s a pipeline program,” Larissa Etwaroo, a program manager of Solar Works DC, told Global Citizen. “We want to give them all the necessary tools they need, not just the hard technical skills, but also soft skills, anywhere from financial literacy to job interview preparation.”

Around 225 people facing employment challenges will receive training through the program over the next three years, according to Etwaroo. The first year’s training is being conducted by GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic.

Etwaroo emphasized that the ultimate goal is job placement. Solar Works, which is run by the district’s Department of Energy and Department of Employment Services, will work with all trainees to find employment after the program ends.

Read More: Renewable Energy Could Add 4M Jobs to US Economy: Report

Beyond creating jobs, the program is also helping low-income residents. All participating homeowners — up to 300 — aren’t paying anything for the solar panels.

The installations are being covered by Solar Works DC as a way to increase solar panel adoption in the region and to reduce the inequality that often surrounds the industry.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re providing them with a way to ease their high energy cost burden,” Etwaroo said.  

“Home solar” significantly lowers electricity bills, saving households thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

But this savings is generally only available to wealthy households, because the upfront cost of buying and installing panels can run into the thousands, making it prohibitively expensive for low-income people.

Some utility companies offer solar installation on a payment plan to help more people access the energy source, and federal and state subsidies have broadened access in the past.

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In recent years, however, subsidies have largely dried up and many utility companies have sought to halt the advance of renewable energy because it threatens to lower their profits in the future by democratizing energy production.

If everyone is producing their own energy, after all, then nobody is paying utilities bills.

This recognition has spurred a reversal so sharp that solar home installation is expected to decline 2% this year — over the past six years, it grew by 900%.

Efforts like Solar Works DC work outside this framework by using government funds to expand solar access, and they’re tackling many issues at once — job creation, cost of living, and climate change.  

By 2032, Washington aims to get 5% of its energy from home solar, as part of a broader effort to get 50% of energy needs met by renewable sources.

Other pro-solar parts of the country are working around obstacles as well. South Miami, for instance, recently voted to require all new homes to have solar panels, joining six cities in California.

Read More: Jimmy Carter Now Powers Half of His Hometown With Solar Panels

Washington aims to help 100,000 low-income households access home solar by this time.

Many homeowners are already benefitting from Solar Works DC, as The Washington Post reports.

“If we did not have the solar panels, our electricity bill would be through the roof — like, so high,” one woman told the Washington Post.

“Every little bit, as you know, helps,” she added. “It gives me more breathing room. I don’t make a ton of money, and I don’t want all of it to go to utilities.”

And young people are grateful for the good-paying opportunities.

“These are real, viable jobs,” said Etwaroo, the program manager. “And with the right amount of training and interest, someone can really pave their way into a great career.”

As Whitney Jackson, 23, said:

“[It’s] challenging and rewarding at the same time, because you know you’re making a difference in homeowners’ lives.”