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Mar 8, 2022

Examining the Sustainability of Sustainability: The Relationship Between Residential Solar and Gentrification in San Diego, CA

Jessie LaMasse, BSBA’21, completed her honor’s thesis with CSE executive director Jeff Mittelstadt as her advisor. We recently had the opportunity to speak with her about her research and how she is using what she learned at Kenan-Flagler in her current role as an EFT and Index Investment Analyst at BlackRock.
How did you choose your research topic?
Choosing the topic to study was one of the hardest parts of the whole project. Ultimately, it came down to figuring out what was missing. What story was left untold or seemingly overlooked. The semester before I started my thesis, I shadowed Dr. Jim Johnson and Jeanne Bonds on impact investing and inclusive growth models. During this opportunity, Dr. Jim Johnson told me, “The problems start with the fine print of who is left out of the policies.” When it came time to work on my own thesis, I combined each of my majors into a project that worked for me. I graduated as a business and interdisciplinary double major (applied communications) with a minor in public policy, and so I decided to analyze a cross-sector approach to clean energy deployment. The topic was a combination of all my interests and passions.
I conducted my analysis toward finding out who was missing out — the social sustainability of the environmental sustainability piece. With the business world pushing all the positives of clean energy, I wanted to make sure that no one was missing out; the most vulnerable should always be considered in order to create the foundation for inclusive, wholistic growth. To do this, I used a mixed methodology to examine the relationship between residential solar energy growth and gentrification occurring between 2000-2018 in San Diego, CA—a leading city in solar energy deployment. I ran a regression using urban displacement project data and American community survey data in addition to interviews with a diverse set of stakeholders. Together they provided a wholistic image of the potential relationship between residential solar energy and gentrification pressures.
What was the biggest surprise and/or key takeaway from your research?
I would say there were two noteworthy things from my research that stuck with me. First, the results on my analysis indicated a potential impact on rental property residents from the deployment of residential solar energy. This group was both vulnerable to being voiceless in the deployment (by having little to no say in whether their rental property decided to have solar energy) as well as the only data group in my project who indicated potential displacement from the rise in rent of residential solar homes versus non-solar energy homes. Here I found the potential missing piece—those left out of the policy or unable to access the clean energy privileges due to additional policies or systems in place. In this case, that being the residential property owner’s lack of deployment based on little to no incentive to add solar energy. Second, I was pleasantly surprised by the power of voice from local non-profits. It was clear to see from my interviews that the non-profit “Grid Alternatives” was advocating on behalf of those left out of solar deployment. Through different strategies, the nonprofit was able to speak up for those could not access the benefits of solar policies and incentive programs.
Where are you working now and how did your education prepare you for the challenges of your current role?
Currently, I am working at BlackRock in New York City as an analyst on the ETF and Index Investment Sustainable Product Strategy Team. My education from KFBS set me up well for a job in finance; however, my thesis set me up for success in curating a voice and mission for a career in sustainability. Because of my thesis, I have an educated opinion on processes and strategies for sustainability. While I do face ongoing challenges, I am constantly growing to evaluate and strategize new ways to think about sustainability. I hope to eventually go back to community work with an educated and interdisciplinary perspective from various jobs to become an expert voice on helping to vocalize the missing pieces.
Read Jessie’s Thesis: “Examining the Sustainability of Sustainability: The Relationship Between Residential Solar and Gentrification in San Diego, CA” here:
Read Jessie’s Thesis

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