WASHINGTON, D.C.—For homeowners and renters, drawing energy from solar panels on their roofs can be very cost-effective: Some estimates put monthly electric-bill savings between 10 and 30 percent, and on top of that, households that install solar systems can get 30 percent of the cost as a tax credit. But for many, installing solar panels is simply not within reach: Setting up such systems can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which means that their use—and subsequent savings—are predominantly enjoyed by wealthy households.
That's why, as Washington, D.C., moves forward with its clean-energy plan—which would have at least half the city's power coming from renewable sources by 2032—it is doing so with an eye on inequality. The city has mandated that a portion of the money set aside for solar initiatives—just under one-third—target low-income neighborhoods.
In 2015, the top 10 percent of earners in Washington D.C. made six times more than did the lowest 10 percent. That meant that D.C. ranked higher than any state in income inequality, according to information parsed by the District’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
D.C.’s inequality is not unlike that of most growing major cities, and the divide between its affluent and its poor runs, troublingly, along racial and geographic lines. Wealthier wards, like Ward 3, can have populations that are over 80 percent white, while poorer ones, like Wards 7 and 8, have populations that are over 90 percent black. That socioeconomic segregation takes on added meaning considering the history of D.C.: After years of living in a predominately minority city, longtime residents are quickly being pushed out by whiter and more affluent newcomers as housing prices rise. Maintaining affordability has proven a staggeringly difficult task.