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Ending Poverty in California Through Solar

Summary: Ending Poverty in California with Solar, or “EPICS,” is a program designed to provide, by 2060, every individual in California with 10 kilowatts of installed solar photovoltaic panels and a monthly basic income, from birth to death and regardless of wealth and income, through the sale of the generated electricity. This is to be achieved by, first, giving every Californian with a share in the California Solar Energy Commons, linked to the total solar energy falling on the state; second, by assigning a 10kW solar photovoltaic array to every individual resident, from which sale of electricity will provide a basic income of $1,000 per month.  Below, we describe the elements of EPICS and how it can be implemented.

The problem of poverty, in California and around the world

An enduring problem across the United States and the world is endemic poverty.  Notwithstanding rising incomes in China and India over the past two decades, 46% of the world’s population lives on less than $5.50 per day (or about $2,000 per year).  In the United States, almost 12% of the population (close to 40 million people) were living in poverty in 2018, on about $17 per day ($6,500 per year).  In California, the poverty rate is between 12.8 and 17% (roughly 5-7 million people) depending on how the number is calculated.  Note that official poverty rates are set fairly low in order to keep the picture from looking much worse, with those above the poverty thresholds hardly being that much better off.[1] 

Poverty is not something that people choose; it arises from a combination of factors that are extremely difficult to escape, especially for larger families.  And poverty has proven to be surprisingly stubborn, notwithstanding many, many efforts to address it.  One approach to ending poverty, proposed by both conservatives and liberals alike, is the “basic income,” which provides a fixed monthly payment to individuals and families who meet stipulated requirements and, unlike welfare or unemployment insurance, comes with no strings or requirements attached.  A few experiments with basic incomes have been tried, but the high cost of a comprehensive program, which would have to come from the taxes of nonbeneficiaries, have prevented any more comprehensive testing. 

Ending Poverty in California with Solar, or “EPICS,” is a program designed to provide every individual in California with a basic monthly income from the sale of the electricity generated by 10 kilowatts of solar photovoltaic panels, from birth to death and regardless of wealth and income. This program is based on Robert Stayton’s proposal in Solar Dividends—How Solar Energy can Generate a Basic Income for Everyone on Earth (Santa Cruz, Calif.: Sandstone, 2019) and the name has been  inspired by Upton Sinclair’s 1934 California gubernatorial campaign and his plan to “End Poverty in California,” which would have created millions of jobs to employ those thrown out of work by the Great Depression.[2]  But, whereas Sinclair saw state taxes as the funding source for EPIC, EPICS will be financed by the sale of a commodity: electricity.

Who owns the Sun?  We all do, in common.

Until now, solar electricity has been available only to individuals who can afford to purchase solar photovoltaic panels and own space on which to install them (for example, on the roofs of their homes). Along with the owners of the large, privately-owned solar farms that sell electricity distributed by utilities over the state’s grid, individual homeowners have been able to take advantage of the open access nature of solar insolation, which is available to whomever can capture it and privatize that energy for individual and corporate use.  This is in the nature of such resources: whomever owns the technology that can mine or extract or transform a resource can capture privately the benefits and deny them to society as a whole. 

Some countries—but not the United States—have declared subsurface mineral resources to be the property of the state (and its citizens), with returns from mineral sales to be directed to national treasuries to finance operations and social expenditures.  In many instances, however, these revenues are diverted into the pockets and bank accounts of ruling elites and never trickle down to those most in need of assistance.  In the United States, resources on or under public lands are leased to private entities, who pay royalties on the land or extracted minerals, but these revenues tend to be quite small and make little difference to the public.

Solar energy, however, falls on everyone and everything.  It drives photosynthesis, weather cycles, hydrology and, indeed, life itself.  The quantity of solar energy that hits the Earth every hour is greater than humans generate and consume in one year.  And no one privately owns any of that solar energy!  We are proposing a law that will give every resident of the state one lifetime share in the California Solar Energy Commons (CalSEC), which cannot be sold but which will have a face value of $13,000. This share will entitle the shareholder to the energy falling on an area equivalent to that covered by a 10 kW solar PV array.  The face value of the share is the size of the basic income generated by the sale of electricity from a 10 kW array to the state’s electrical utilities, power coops and community choice aggregators.[3] 

How will EPICS be implemented?

A 10 kW solar array covers an area of approximately 50 to 65 square meters (or about 600 square feet, depending on the power rating of the PV panels).  Forty million arrays will cover less than 900 square miles (by contrast, metropolitan Los Angeles covers 4,850 square miles, and California, a little less than 164,000 square miles; Santa Cruz County, 604 square miles).  While this is not an inconsiderable area to be covered, it does not seem insurmountable. New solar technologies will make it possible to mount panels over agricultural fields, generating power from light frequencies other than those required for photosynthesis while paying ground rents to farmers and landowners.

EPICS is a 40 year project and will require construction of one million solar arrays every year beginning with the state’s poorest residents (by the time the final tranche is installed, the first one will need to be replaced). A 10 kW solar PV array generates about 36 kWh per day, or roughly 13,000 kWh per year.  Sale of this electricity at $1/kWh will thus generate $13,000 per year of which $1,000 ($83/month) will go to operation and maintenance of the arrays, leaving $12,000 per year (or $1,000/month).  If the program begins in 2025, by 2065, every resident of California will be receiving a basic annual income of $12,000 from the sale of electricity into the state’s grid at a tariff of $1 per kWh. While this might seem like a very high price for one kilowatt hour, it is not the average price, which will be determined by the generation mix at any one time.  By 2065, moreover (and as discussed below), the retail price of one kWh is likely to be considerably higher than 50¢/kWh.

Finally, what will all of this cost and who will pay for it?  The cost of arrays will be repaid from the basic income.  At the present time, a 10 kW array costs about $20,000 to install, with a simple payback time of less than two years.  At the end of the payment period, the basic income will rise to $1,000 per month.

Lest all of this appear too blue sky for words, it is worth putting EPICS in the context of California’s renewable portfolio standard, which mandates that 50% of the state’s electricity generation come from renewable sources by 2030.  California’s current generating capacity is 80 GW, producing roughly 285.5 terrawatt-hours per year.[4]  Current state energy consumption is roughly 2,340 TWh(e)/year (primary energy in terms of kWh).  Assuming 35% efficiency, non-electrical delivered energy is approximately 720 TWh(e)/year. 

Each tranche of one million arrays will generate roughly 13 billion kilowatt hours per year; by 2035, 10 million will be generating 130 TWh or 46% of current state consumption.  At full buildout in 2065, EPICS will produce 520 TWh per year, more than enough to supply all of the state’s future electricity requirements.

Generally speaking, we assume that the cost of electricity and energy to the consumer will rise over the coming 40 years.  The average cost of energy has been extraordinarily low over most of the century between 1920 and 2020, and much of the growth in consumption is predicted to be in the form of electricity as the world weans itself from greenhouse gas-intensive fossil fuels. 

EPICS Program elements

Of course, EPICS cannot be built in a day or even a decade, but design and planning are required now if the first tranche of solar arrays is to be built in 2025.  The elements below comprise just a portion of the design and planning phase, which must be started immediately in order to meet the launch date. 

  1. Technical policy report (2020): Drawing on a range of experts in relevant technological, regulatory and economic fields, preparation of a study that analyzes and vets the basic propositions, requirements and benefits of EPICS, creates a viable schedule, and develops a viable framework for financing and deployment;
  2. EPICS network (2020-21): Creation of a partnership with committed private foundations, community choice aggregators and municipalities and agencies committed to provision of a non-tax based basic income, meeting the targets of California’s Renewable Portfolio Standards, solar PV distributors and installers and other public, private and non-profit entities;
  3. Pilot project (2021-23): Acquiring funding to construct an array of 1,000 10-kW PV installations at a single site, with support of foundations, corporations and other sources, identification and enrollment of selected, qualified households in the pilot, and sale of electricity to a selected community choice aggregator;
  4. Outreach & publicity campaign (2020-24): Creation of communication and publicity campaign to disseminate EPICS over a wide range of channels, including brochures, talks, contest entries, internet and social media, education, conferences, workshops and other public events.
  5. Creation and implementation of CalSEC, the California Solar Energy Commons (2022-24):Writing of legislation to create CalSEC, which awards every resident of California a 10 kilowatt equivalent share in the solar energy commons, along with public education, lobbying campaign and, possibly, a state referendum.

[1]   World Bank. “Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018: Piecing Together the Poverty Puzzle,” Washington, DC: World Bank, 2018, P. 7, at: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/30418/9781464813306.pdf (accessed December 23, 2019); Jessica Semega, Melissa Kollar, John Creamer, and Abinash Mohanty, “ Income and Poverty in the United States: 2018,” Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census, September 2019, at: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2019/demo/p60-268.pdf (accessed December 23, 2019); Sarah Bohn, Caroline Danielson, and Tess Thorman, “Poverty in California,” San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California, July 2019, at: https://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/JTF_PovertyJTF.pdf (accessed December 23, 2019).

[2] James N. Gregory, et al., “Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California campaign,” Seattle, Wash.: Civil Rights & Labor History Consortium, University of Washington, 2015-2019, at: https://depts.washington.edu/epic34/campaign.shtml (accessed December 23, 2019).

[3] While a CalSEC share cannot be sold, it can be borrowed against in order to finance individual projects.  The income from the share will then be directed toward repayment of the loan.

[4] One terawatt hour equals one billion kilowatt hours.

Additional Resources

Listen to the KSQD Radio Interview with Bob Stayton, December 15, 2019.

You can request a free e-book of Solar Dividends at: http://solardividends.org/free-ebook-by-request/

Six Propositions on the Need for Public Power,” Commentary, Feb. 27, 2020.

Upton Sinclair, I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty–A True Story of the Future.

World Bank Group, Piecing Together the Poverty Puzzle, Washington, DC, 2018, at: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/30418/9781464813306.pdf

Sarah Bohn, Caroline Danielson, and Tess Thorman, “Poverty in California,” Public Policy Institute of California, July 2019.