Installing equity in solar energy systems: the role of state, local, and business institutions

Authors: Maximilian Eisenburger*, University of Illinois (Dept Urban & Regional Planning)
Topics: Energy, Economic Geography
Keywords: solar energy, sustainability, equity, economic geography, energy, renewable energy
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Maryland B, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

The rapid growth of photovoltaic solar energy raises concerns regarding the allocation of costs and benefits yielded by solar, as well as who controls the electricity generated from sunlight. While these concerns are often debated in terms of competing technological models (i.e., distributed energy generation through rooftop solar, versus large-scale, transmission-based systems), this paper argues that the institutional context in which these technological configurations exist contribute significantly to their distributional and political characteristics. Where distributed rooftop solar's proponents emphasize its local employment benefits, increased autonomy and control over resources, critics contend that rooftop solar costs significantly more, ignores typically lower-income renter households, shifts grid maintenance costs to non-solar (and lower income) households, and provides fewer high-quality job opportunities for entry level workers. However, by framing equity trade-offs in terms of technology and scale, this debate overlooks the institutional rules and practices that shape cost structures, allocations of rights, and career pathways associated with but by no means inherent to these technological models. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with solar energy firms, policymakers, and civic organizations in two states, this paper demonstrates how these disparate outcomes are in fact the product of specific configurations of property rights, labor markets, and business practices. These configurations, in turn, are more amenable to regionally specific policy interventions to improve equity outcomes than the underlying technological systems that they affect.

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