Bert and Maureen Grogan moved to Uniondale, N.Y., in the 1970s from Guyana. Back then, they were one of the Long Island town’s few immigrant families. They left to California in 1988, returned to Uniondale in 1999 and realized that the town had undergone a radical demographic makeover since they’d been away.
“When we came back from California, we were quite surprised to see the big change,” says Maureen, 69. What had once been a predominantly White suburb was now 48.5 percent Black and 38.8 percent Latinx. Forty-one percent of residents were foreign-born.
Uniondale is undergoing another major change, one that the Grogans were quick to hop on. And that’s solar panels.
The town of nearly 25,000 has seen a dramatic increase in residential solar installations. In 2013, there were only five solar installations, which the state partially pays for to help reduce costs for installers and to encourage residents to take on such energy sources. Fast forward to 2016, and that number spiked to 70. That’s a 1,300 percent increase.
Perhaps that’s not suprising given that Long Island is the state’s largest residential solar market, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in September 2016. But Uniondale is not the stereotypical image of Long Island, a predominantly White affluent region with a median income hovering around $94,000.
Restaurants on main roads reflect the town’s various ethnicities with Salvadorean pupuserias dotting many corners, as well as Jamaican jerk chicken joints. Dominican-run bodegas are abundant with their bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches a staple for any Uniondale-raised kid’s breakfast diet.
Tucked away from the bustling commercial areas of Uniondale are its suburban-style neighborhoods. Walk around different blocks, and you’re bound to see at least a couple homes with the glossy, futuristic infrastructure on their roofs. On one block, Leslie Lane, three solar-powered homes sit side by side. Still, as modern as the panels may help the community appear, they can’t distract from the boarded-up trap house that sits abandoned on the same block as a gorgeous three-story home.
News coverage on Uniondale almost always revolves around street crime and gang violence. In reality, the violent crime rate is 2.79 per 1,000 residents, according to data crunched by NeighborhoodScout.
Residents of this town aspire to community gardens, farmers markets, bike lanes and bike racks, as outlined in A 2012 Vision Plan. The town has yet to see this vision plan fully realized, but according to local legislator Kevan Abarahams, who represents the town on the county level, individuals are taking their own steps to clean up their environment.
“The people of Uniondale are more conscious in ensuring there is a future for their children and their children’s children,” says Abarahamsl. “It feeds into the fact that we’re becoming a more and more renewable-energy conscious community.”
The same can be said for other Black and Latinx communities across the U.S. Over 70 percent of Latinx voters in states including Arizona, Florida and Ohio say it is “very” and “extremely” important for President Trump to “take an aggressive stance on climate change,” according to a December 2016 survey by Latino Decisions, a Latinx-focused political research group. Their Black peers believe the transition to clean energy is a positive one, with 66 percent nationwide saying that shift will result in new jobs and 57 percent believing it’ll drop their energy costs, according to a poll by environmental groups Green for All and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
That’s exactly why the Grogans decided to go solar two years ago: money.
As a retired couple living on a fixed income, every dollar matters to the Grogans. The technology costs them, they say, just $15 a month on electricity and $73 a month to lease the panels—a vast difference from the days of $200+ energy bills. Even during the winter months, their bills might hit $56 but not much more than that. In the summer, they’re looking at $8 electricity bills. Long Island residents have some of the highest electricity rates in the country, according to 2015 data from the Energy Information Administration. “I don’t know why people are hesitant to do it,” says Maureen. “It really does work.”
The cost savings from renewables have always been there. That’s not new. What is new, however, are the options available now to homeowners interested in this increasingly affordable technology.
When the money’s right, people can’t refuse
The Grogans had never thought much about alternative energy sources, they say. They’d read and heard about it but that was long ago when the technology first emerged. It was beyond their price range at the time. Then they got a call two years ago from someone at SolarCity, the largest solar energy provider in the United States, which Tesla Motors acquired in November.
The couple initially told the company they weren’t interested, but their representatives kept calling, Maureen says. Then, kept calling… and kept calling. Eventually, Maureen says, they told SolarCity that she and her husband weren’t interested in buying anything, that they didn’t have the money to buy anything, but that they’d hear the representative out.
After a home visit, the couple realized they could actually save money by going solar and that the installation wouldn’t cost them a penny. A credit check and roof examination later, the Grogans signed a lease agreement with SolarCity. Now, they’re huge advocates for the technology and have tried convincing neighbors, friends and family to get on board. Their son ended up getting panels installed on his home. He lives in Baldwin, NY, another predominantly Black and Latinx community adjacent to Uniondale, which has also seen a dramatic spike in solar energy.
But from where is this spike coming? “I truly believe much of this is accountable to the fact that solar and renewable energy is becoming easier to access,” says Legislator Abraham.
He’s likely correct: The zero upfront costs are a result of the NY-Sun Initiative launched in 2012, which offered new financing options like solar leases and Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). This program solidified the state’s long-term commitment toward solar, as well as a set pool of $1 billion in funding that “really gave the solar industry and solar customers a great deal of certainty and transparency as to what support and what kind of financial options could be available in New York during that time,” says Max Joel, the initiative’s program manager.
Another factor in this increase is SolarCity opening a branch on Long Island in 2013. Its first installation in Uniondale came not long after in 2014. It is now the town’s main solar manufacturer. Out of Uniondale’s 125 total incentivized residential solar programs since 2002, SolarCity is behind 56 of them.
A company spokesperson attributed their involvement in the community to the area’s high electricity rates, as well as its referral program, which gives $200 to every SolarCity customer who refers someone else. “Many of our new customers come from referrals—when one of your neighbors goes solar, you’re more likely to,” wrote the spokesperson in an email to Colorlines.
Financing programs like leases and PPAs—though far from perfect—have created more options for homeowners interested in using renewable energy. When the technology first became widely available to homeowners around 2007, installation cost upwards of $40,000 on average. Today, an installation may cost $15,000. Solar not only allows them to generate their own energy, it reduces their carbon footprint since the energy is no longer coming from the combustion of natural gas or oil. That means less pollution.
Not suprisingly, environmentally minded California led the way with solar energy: Home Depot began selling residential solar systems there in 2001 before it expanded the program nationwide. Today, the state sees nearly 70 percent of its solar power go toward residential. Most homeowners have purchased their systems. Other states that see solar becoming competitive include Texas, Hawaii and Minnesota, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. And now, as evidenced by Uniondale, its appeal is apparent in Black-and-Latinx-immigrant East Coast suburbs.
“When [solar] started to come on the scene, it really was just for the wealthy 20 years ago,” says Tom Kimbis, executive vice president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “It was very expensive like the old cell phones in the movies. Nothing could be further from the truth today because of [these] models… It’s actually the complete opposite: as something perceived as the rich White man technology to something that’s worked for all and can be extremely empowering to generate your own power on your rooftop.”
But some folks in the renewable energy world note that while such programs are more inclusive than the buy-to-use model, which can require up to about $16,000 of upfront costs in New York state, it still excludes a decent chunk of communities: renters, people in urban centers and those with poor credit.
Green for All Director Vien Truong knows what makes a program great for underserved communities: no credit score check or loan and a third party willing to invest in a person’s home.
Communities of color across the country need access to this technology, advocates say. Finally, the market is bringing it to them. That’s been the biggest barrier, says Truong. “I don’t think it’s political will,” she says. (Remember, most Blacks and Latinxs support clean energy and climate change mitigation.)
Renewable energy can mean something else entirely for a marginalized community than it would for an affluent one looking to reduce its carbon footprint. For people of color, solar can mean cleaner air and bigger savings.
With a new energy source, a healthier environment and more justice
Some might argue that the transition away from fossil fuels should be about more than just economics. Perhaps it should be about setting an example or leading the world to a more just and sustainable place. Sure. Electricity does, after all, make up the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.
But money talks.
Energy costs eat at lower-income households’ budgets worse than their affluent counterparts: Low-income households’ incomes go toward energy costs at a rate three times higher than those average-income households in the same city, a 2016 study by Energy Efficiency for All showed.
Finances can be the driving force behind when and why families of color ultimately decide to utilize the technology, but finances don’t tell the entire story of how this shift impacts and shapes their community. The Town of Hempstead, which, according to the latest available data in this 2010 report, sees Long Island’s highest carbon emissions and waste disposal rates, in part due to its high population and workforce numbers. Solar energy could help reduce these numbers.
Uniondale is surrounded by parkways so, hence, subject to heavier traffic, which doesn’t create the healthiest air. Children who go outside during recess at Smith Street Elementary School can see and hear the traffic of a nearby parkway through a fence. For high schoolers who decide to run track at Uniondale High School, they can hear the whizzing of vehicles speeding down another close parkway. “The community’s location adjacent and near to regional highways has resulted in concerns about air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and childhood asthma,” the Uniondale Vision Plan states.
Margo Cargill runs the community’s Chamber of Commerce and is excited to see the rise in residential solar for all of the above reasons. She’s lived in Uniondale since 1989 and is supportive of pro-green changes that make the town more attractive—like solar panels or a farmers market. She says she was impressed—and a bit surprised—with her community for taking that step because “you wouldn’t think that people would be so progressive.”
The Grogans say the impact they’d make on their surrounding environment definitely influenced their decision to go solar. “I know some people don’t believe in climate change,” said Bert, 70, alluding to the current administration, “but something is causing this weird weather. The changes that they’re talking about [are] going to affect the whole world because everybody is looking at the U.S. The U.S. sets the example.”
Luckily, the U.S. is full of examples of how communities of color are taking the initiative to transition toward solar.
Look to California, the nation’s leader in solar. The San Francisco neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point—made up of mostly Black and Asian people—shut down the state’s dirtiest fossil fuel plant, the Potrero Power Plant, in 2009 to then invest the money it won from the settlement in residential solar panels installations with the help of Grid Alternatives. “That project sort of became a model for the state’s low-income solar program,” says Julian Foley, Grid Alternative’s communication’s director.
North Carolina has adopted a cooperative solar program that features more inclusive financing where the users are also owners. Truong of Green for All is a fan of that model, which has helped the state triple solar use in disadvantaged communities, she says. She notes that the model has spread to Arkansas and Alabama.
And then there is Uniondale. It’s a town that barely gets noted for anything outside of its flaws. Now, Uniondale is proving that it is more than that. It’s a town making its contribution toward a just transition. One roof at a time.