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Another Voice: Solar energy helps turn abandoned building into community asset

By Rahwa Ghirmatzion

Thursday, July 19, is a great day for energy democracy.

On Buffalo’s West Side, neighbors are cutting a ribbon on a once-abandoned public school, and reopening it as a freshly renovated and energy-efficient building, partially powered by solar panels on the roof. School 77 now houses 30 units of affordable housing for seniors, meeting space for the community and offices for local nonprofits.

A few years ago, neighbors feared gentrification might claim the building. Instead, community members – low-income and working-class people of color – decided they wanted affordable, attractive, energy-efficient housing for the neighborhood. They wanted community solar power. They wanted a building that would serve the community. They joined forces with us at PUSH Buffalo, raised money, worked hard and delivered exactly what they wanted.

School 77 is a textbook example of energy democracy, which aims to advance equitable and sustainable economic development that includes everyone, regardless of how much they make or where they live, as we move to 100 percent renewable energy. The world is facing a new energy era. The technology for producing energy from the sun, the wind and other clean sources is getting cheaper and cheaper.

Renewables’ share of electricity generation is growing fast, while centralized fossil-fueled power plants are becoming less viable. In that energy transition lies opportunity, and it’s important to make sure that its benefits don’t just enrich corporations and utilities, but also flow to regular, everyday New Yorkers like the people behind School 77.

School 77 is also a great example of a community solar project. Residents can subscribe to power generated from the rooftop panels, and save money on their electric bills. Community solar offers a way for renters, low-income residents and others who don’t own a roof suitable for solar panels to benefit from the clean energy revolution. By joining community leadership with support from the state government, the City of Buffalo, nonprofits and businesses, School 77 has shown that community solar energy projects can work.

There’s one problem with School 77: It’s too rare. A state grant program to help community solar projects get started could help them proliferate. And a commitment to 100 percent clean, renewable energy could be a game-changer. Just think of all the vacant buildings and unused land, in Buffalo and across the state, that energy democracy could turn into productive community solar projects.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision strategy rightly calls for building a clean, more resilient and affordable energy system for all. Community solar and energy democracy are key tools for realizing this vision. As we cut the ribbon on School 77, we hope for countless more ribbon-cuttings on projects like this one, in community after community, all across the state.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion is incoming executive director of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo.

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