Climate challenge: Let the sun power low-income families

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By CHLOE WEST
Capital News Service

LANSING – Low-income households consume three times the energy used by middle class families, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. 

Solar energy can provide low-income households with cheaper energy, according to Yale Environment, an online magazine on global environmental issues. 

Constructing a more resistant grid and reducing the energy output is crucial to ending climate change, especially in lower-income households, said Duane Watson, a Consumers Energy agricultural specialist. 

Consumers Energy supports legislation for financing energy efficiency, Watson said. A kilowatt hour of electricity not used eliminates waste, so the company is building a system to support the most efficient use of that energy for lower-income homeowners.

The impact of COVID-19 has created the need for lower-income families to transition into solar energy to save money in other areas such as food, shelter and clothing, said Mark Hagerty, the president of Michigan Solar Solutions, which has offices in Wixom, Grand Rapids and Riverdale.

Many lower-income households don’t understand how to reduce their carbon footprint; the total amount of greenhouse gasses produced by an individual’s actions, Hagerty said. Before providing cheap energy solutions, educating them is an obstacle that needs to be overcome. 

“From an environmental standpoint, it’s important to get lower-income households on board for energy efficiency,” Hagerty said. “I’ve been in houses where the heat is on and the window is cracked, so educating these families on the impact they’re creating is the first obstacle we have to overcome. 

“My biggest concentration is spent on informing them how to not waste, so more money can be saved for future solar. When I go into these households, I inform rather than sell solar panels because that has to be done first,” he said. 

Michigan Solar Solutions is working to drive down the cost of solar per watt. When he first started, it was over $8 and now it’s down to $3, Watson said. The average space on a roof is large enough to place enough solar panels to offset owners’ complete use.

Carbon dioxide emissions are not the only concern, he said. 

“Methane gas is 20 times more dangerous to our climate than carbon dioxide,” Hagerty said. “All greenhouse gasses are detrimental to the environment, but I’ve seen methane be a key factor. “This is where the education component comes in regarding lower-income households.” 

Other barriers to combating climate change through lower-income households begin by evaluating where they live and their property, according to Public Service Commissioner Tremaine Phillips. 

“Many families with low incomes live in apartment buildings.Therefore, solar energy would have to be through the landlord,” Phillips said. “A lot of locations aren’t feasible for solar, such as a shading problem. Cost is also another challenge.” 

Phillips said he understands the realities of climate change and wants to help lower-income families get on board. 

Phillips said. “The two components that need to be taken into account are the energy burden and cost on lower-income households. We are already locked into a certain degree of warming, so adding solar energy into lower-incomes will build resilience.” 

California, Louisiana and Colorado have been implementing solar adoption among low income families according to the advocacy group Center for American Progress. 

Annick Anctil, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan State University, has been working with a student on a project to push solar energy into lower-income households around Michigan. 

“I’ve found that bringing solar energy into a row of houses can reduce the cost, even reduce climate change,” Anctil said. “Building smaller houses for lower-income families is efficient for implementing solar and reducing the dependence on paying utilities. 

Asher Freedman

“We created an app to build 1,200-square-foot houses, which is better than most sizes of low-income households. These houses are small, but more efficient for solar and cheaper for lower-income families,” Anctil said.

Chloe West writes for Great Lakes Echo.