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PhD Highlight | Solar Deployment and Poverty in America

Yutong was born and raised in North China. She is a Ph.D. student in Public Policy with a concentration in sustainability and resilience at Northeastern University. Her research interests include inter-related policy issues of energy transitions, climate resilience, environmental and energy governance, public opinion, state-society relations, and sustainable development.

What sparked your interest in the particular direction of your study?
As my broad research interests focus on renewable energy deployment in the United States and China, I have been paying attention to China’s solar photovoltaic (PV) poverty alleviation program throughout my first-year PhD studies, following my previous investigation on China’s targeted poverty alleviation policy. A recent study published in Nature Communications shows that China’s solar PV poverty alleviation programs have reduced rural poverty to a large extent. Conversely, in the US, less than half of solar projects benefit low-income households. In the challenging times of COVID-19, recovery measures should be taken not only to boost short-term economic growth but also to achieve long-term goals such as job creation, poverty alleviation, and a more equitable renewable energy transition. Within the relevant literature, it has been acknowledged that solar deployment has potential for poverty reduction as well as energy and environmental justice. But there has been minimal research analyzing whether and how this potential is being realized, especially in the United States. As a COVID-19 policy fellow while also taking the GIS course this summer, I thought it would be worthwhile to visualize solar deployment and poverty in an American context, which would also be helpful to develop my dissertation proposal.

What sorts of adaptation, if any, have you had to make to conduct research during a pandemic?
This past semester, I did not experience any difficulties in obtaining open source data for an analysis of the correlation between solar deployment and poverty in Massachusetts within ArcGIS Pro. But in future research, I would like to do fieldwork such as semi-structured interviews to enrich this initial investigation. The only adaptation I had to make is to meet with my advisors, Professor Jennie Stephens and Professor Christopher Bosso, and my GIS course instructor, Dr. Glenn Hazelton, virtually instead of more interactive discussion in person. I would like to thank them for their supportive feedback and for helping me moving the semester-long project forward throughout the summer.

Have any of your findings surprised you? How?
By visualizing solar deployment and communities with different poverty percentage at the tract level, my study finds that there are few solar plants in communities that have relatively high poverty rate. I was surprised to find across communities with different rates of poverty, there were disparities not only in the proximity of solar plants, but the capacity of solar power generation as well. This indicates that the growth of solar deployment in Massachusetts is not benefiting everyone equally. There is still a long way to go to achieve energy justice even in a state which plays a leading role in solar deployment in the US. In addition, by visualizing solar deployment and Environmental Justice (EJ) communities at the block level in Massachusetts, my research also highlights the great potential of solar deployment to promote energy and environmental justice by popularizing solar power among those vulnerable populations in Massachusetts.

How could your study help influence policy change?
There are a variety of policy implications from this study. First, although solar incentive programs such as SMART exist in MA, more projects targeting low-income communities should be initiated and popularized. In addition, policies matching those solar programs should be formulated as well, such as projects promoting solar power for affordable housing. Second, since many households in poverty do not own their own home, it is necessary to develop new technology and innovative solutions for energy storage such as virtual net metering. Third, different stakeholders, including the project developer, the relevant firms such as construction companies, the utility, the landowner, government decision makers, and the financier, should collaborate with each other to increase community engagement. For example, relevant companies need to market their services more in low-income neighborhoods.

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