Bay Area Residents Work to Turn Health Inequities Into a Solar Mosaic

A new program in Oakland breaks away from the corporate bandwagon of going green to bring solar power to low-income residents.

By Yvonne Yen Liu Oct 17, 2011

Gwai Boonkeut suffers from severe heart disease. He doesn’t smoke, has no family history of diabetes or heart problems, and he’s in his mid 50s — about 10 years younger than the average age for men who suffer from their first heart attack. A doctor told Boonkeut that his heart operated at a third of the capacity of a normal heart. Boonkeut, who supports his family by working as a school janitor, had to cut back his hours because of his health.

Boonkeut moved his family to Richmond, California in 1980 from Laos to escape the violence of the Vietnam War, where he lost his mother, two brothers, and a niece.  However, life in Richmond wasn’t any better.  In 2004, his 15-year-old daughter Chan was mistakenly targeted by gang members and killed at the family’s front door. Boonkeut’s older son was caught up drug use.

The city is dominated by the Chevron corporation, which operates massive oil refineries, spewing hazardous toxins in the air. Boonkeut is a member of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), a community based group advocating for the health and livelihoods of members such as Boonkeut.

Richmond’s residents, mostly black, Latino, and South Asian, suffer from higher rates of death from heart disease and cancer than surrounding communities, according to the documentary "Unnatural Causes" by the California Newsreel.  Children are hospitalized for asthma at twice the rate than surrounding counties.

Now, residents are teaming up with community groups like APEN to paint their own vision of a healthy, sustainable future.

The first step towards that vision occurred last week, with the launch of Oakland Solar Mosaic, a partnership between an eponymous community solar company and the Ella Baker Center. Their pilot project was a community owned solar installation atop a neighborhood center, the Asian Resource Center, in Oakland’s Chinatown, which houses APEN and other community based organizations.  Community members each chipped in $100 to purchase a tile, a multitude of which created a mosaic.  

"We know what dirty energy does to our communities," said Mari Rose Taruc, state organizing director for APEN. "We have members in Richmond at the fenceline of the Chevron refineries and members living in Chinatown near the 880 freeway; the consequences are huge for our communities."

She added, "It’s going to take a lot to transition out of fossil fuels and harmful industrial practices, to a cleaner world that we can actually be a part of, in terms of beneficiaries, to get our folks to be part of the work it takes to do that."

The panels will generate 28.8 kilowatts, saving the center over $300 monthly on their utility bill.  Any monies netted from the savings will first go towards repaying the community investors, then towards community ownership of the panels, and ultimately towards wealth the community can pocket.

That’s what distinguishes Solar Mosaic from other renewable energy projects by, say, Chevron or the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), who have jumped onto the green bandwagon. The community, not a corporation, holds ownership and wealth.

This is energy democracy in action, according to Billy Parish, cofounder and president of Solar Mosaic. Parish’s past credentials include co-founding the Energy Action Coalition and supporting the Navajo green economy campaign of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, which his partner Wahleah Johns co-directed.  (I profiled her work with the Navajo green economy in this case study.)

"Energy is the largest industry in the history of human civilization; there’s an incredible amount of power controlled by a small number of people in fossil fuels and finance companies," explained Parish. "We represent a very tiny example of a major shift that’s happening, where wealth and prosperity that the energy sector represents can be more democratically enjoyed."

Parish added, "We hope soon that people will be able to move their money from investments in the stock market and derivatives to tangible clean energy assets, an emerging class that is based on safe energy, good for the world, and which provides a good financial return."

For Mari Rose Taruc, the solar panels on her roof represent hope. "To know that it’s on the rooftop of our building is an inspiration that it’s also doable for homes, businesses, and other buildings."

A hope so necessary for APEN’s members, like Gwai Boonkeut and his family.  

"Solar by itself is green only, especially if it’s only for rich people and we still have bad working conditions," added Taruc.  "Our question is where are the APIs or immigrants in this movement?  We want to see models of ownership and business, where they honor the folks in the community, the 99 percent, a more decentralized and locally owned green economy."