Challenging The Norm And Changing The Face Of Solar Power

Jill K. Cliburn

The installation of solar projects in rural Kerrville, TX, provides jobs for an increasingly diverse solar industry.

Solar PV sells to a large market that continues to grow. In fact, middle-income homeowners have made up more than half of the residential PV market in leading solar states for a decade. According to a study of solar households in 13 states, published by Lawrence Berkeley Labs last year1 (https://bit.ly/2mHkd2N), the median income of solar homeowners is less than $90,000, and renters increasingly enjoy community shared-solar options. Yet, solar is still practically non-existent in many urban and rural communities. Low- to moderate- income households face barriers to owning, leasing or sharing in solar benefits. Non-profit organizations and local government agencies, which could help, face barriers, as well. And a look around the office suites of most solar and clean-tech companies still shows a lack of diversity among the people leading America’s urgent race to renewables.

The need to broaden access to solar benefits and opportunities presents a many-faceted and daunting challenge, but participants in the U.S. Department of Energy’s recently concluded “Solar in Your Community Challenge”, found one key was to start with some well-known wisdom—to act locally.

According to Challenge program manager Shubha Jaishankar, this meant helping 170 community-based teams from 40 states, as well as Puerto Rico and Guam, to identify specific barriers to achieving their goals, aim for measurable progress, and bracket the effort within an 18-month timeframe. For Jaishankar, it also meant supplying teams with coaches, technical assistance and in some cases, seed funding.

In May 2019, the DOE announced no-strings cash prizes totaling $1 million, distributed amongst the top five Challenge teams. A dozen more teams received honorable mentions for achievements in special categories, from innovation, to financing, to the mobilization of volunteer resources. In total, these teams are driving about 26 MW of new solar, but deployment was by no means their only objective. Project teams sought to make a difference in their communities and beyond.

Scrolling through a long spreadsheet of team data, Jaishankar apologized for momentary lapses in recalling the details of every project. The number of projects and players in the Challenge program could be almost overwhelming, but there is a payoff. Jaishankar explained, “Only after you see so many different projects—their difficulties and their successes—can you see where the commonalities are. Now we are starting to answer questions like, what are the best practices for expanding solar access, and what are the big things we (at DOE) can do to make a difference?”

The Challenge website (www.energy.gov/eere/solar/solar-your-community-challenge) includes an interactive map, identifying all the projects and winners. Attendees at the ASES National Solar Conference in 2017 and 2018 heard progress reports from a cross-section of these projects, including four out of the five top winners. ASES featured some projects on its general conference program and also offered workshops specifically for Challenge participants.

For Chris Jedd, Energy Manager at the Denver (Colorado) Housing Authority (DHA) and leader of the Challenge Grand Prize-winning team, broadening access to solar felt like a logical extension of the effort to provide affordable housing. When the agency exhausted straightforward rooftop solar options, Jedd and his team applied to build a 2 MW community solar garden, under Xcel Energy’s Solar*Rewards program. DHA backed the project loan, signed on as the anchor customer and found a buyer for the tax credits. In DHA’s master- metered buildings project-related bill savings, averaging 15% to 20%, reduce building operating expenses benefiting a total of 500 residents. Moreover, part of the solar project was set aside for free individual subscriptions. These provide bill savings directly to households that are individually metered.

The project, including community involvement and on-site solar job training, is one of the first of its kind in the country. For DHA, it inspired a new 2 MW solar expansion. According to Jedd, other housing agencies nationwide are calling him, too. They’ve heard the news—that the Denver team won the Challenge program’s top prize of $500,000, and some want to start their own projects. From Jedd’s perspective, a lot of the credit goes to his partners, including those at the DHA, GRID Alternatives, SolarTAC and other agencies and firms, including Ensight Energy, a woman- and minority-owned business. “I think my secret to success is hanging around a lot of smart people,” he said.

The second place Challenge prize of $200,000 went to the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), a non-profit based in Backus, Minnesota. RREAL has worked to reimagine low- income energy assistance by integrating the benefits of community-owned solar with conventional programs, like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The RREAL team deployed a total of seven solar projects during the Challenge—five throughout the Leech Lake Nation in rural Minnesota, one on low-income housing in Duluth and one at a community action agency in Vermont. Each project provided experience with specific aspects of RREAL’s business model and its approach to community education and empowerment.

RREAL’s partnerships with community action agencies, established both during and after the official close of the Challenge program, are delivering the strong practical benefits of solar energy to low-income families. For example, these local agencies, which often run LIHEAP programs, can use the same application process and criteria for participation in solar-benefit and LIHEAP programs, saving time and lowering costs all around. From a broader perspective, RREAL’s Executive Director Jason Edens noted that while LIHEAP and similar energy assistance funds can help, “they are a stopgap, and not a solution.” RREAL envisions a way to break the cycle of low-income energy emergencies, which range from unpaid bills to the difficult choice to “heat or eat” by pairing conventional assistance with long-term investments in solar generation. RREAL’s test projects have helped host agencies pass along solar-related savings month after month, and these savings typically add up to 20 percent or more off their client’s electricity bills. If replicated by the thousand community action agencies that are scattered nationwide, the total impact of this strategy could be enormous.

RREAL’s development director, Vicki O’Day, said the Challenge award is not the end of this story. The next phase includes developing what she calls a Pay for Success model for financing community based solar projects. “This is a form of social impact investing,” she explained, “where the investor could be a public agency, a foundation or an individual who expects a reliable, outcome-based return, but perhaps over a longer time and with greater public involvement. That brings lasting value to the community.” O’Day, who has a background in banking, said that for her, broadening access to solar is a result of applying smart, cutting edge financing and organizational strategies that result in systemic change.

Challenge projects that won smaller awards and honorary mentions shared a dedication to creative problem solving. Teams proved you can make an economic case for directing solar benefits toward disadvantaged customers, regardless of the community’s prevailing political allegiance. For example, the Kerrville (Texas) Public Utility Board (KPUB) worked with team members from Schneider Engineering, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, RES Americas, NextEra Energy to build four solar projects for the utility’s low-income customers and non-profits that serve community needs. Three of the projects are open to subscribers, as well as to the project hosts. So far, KPUB’s total solar capacity is 3.7 MW.

KPUB General Manager Mike Wittler said community solar economics penciled out for the utility because the project saves on wholesale energy transmission and other peak-demand costs. The project also helps customers who truly need help with their electric bills, and it preserves the utility’s relationship with non-profit customers, who represent the heart of the community. These include Schreiner University and a ranch that offers popular family camps and multi-cultural educational retreats. If the utility had not stepped up with solar, those customers might have been tempted to go around the local, public power utility to get solar energy benefits.

Wittler said, “Don’t get me wrong: We’re a red county, as (conservative) as they come. But our Board sees the benefits of local solar.” Now KPUB is considering ways to expand solar opportunities, as well as energy efficiency and other strategies to keep the community strong.

The variety among Challenge projects is impressive, but so is the network that project teams have built across the political spectrum and the urban/rural divide. Over the 18-month program term, similarities among the teams’ struggles emerged, along with opportunities to work together. For example, Fellowship Energy, a project out of Burlingame, California, won a Challenge runner-up prize for designing a loan instrument that can leverage tax credits to install solar at local Episcopal churches, while meeting tough Internal Revenue Service regulations for non-profits. Even with access to the tax credits, Fellowship Energy found it difficult to attract investors with a tax appetite, willing to work with individual churches. The churches’ collateral—in the form of sanctuaries and steeples and earnings from the collection basket—is hardly fungible. To tackle this problem, Fellowship Energy worked up the chain, eventually receiving support from the overarching Episcopal Church Building Fund. Working with the Fund, Fellowship Energy was able to finance a total of 4 MW of solar, lowering 16 individual churches’ operating costs and freeing more church money for community service work. During the Challenge, Fellowship Energy’s CEO, Philip Kwait, did not know that 2,600 miles away in rural West Virginia, another Challenge project was working on a similar solution to the same problem. Solar Holler, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, was pursuing financing with the national Presbyterian Church Building Fund. When Kwait learned about Solar Holler, he was anxious to compare notes on solar finance for the church market. “It would be great if we could talk,” he said, adding that competition between fledgling solar financiers was no deterrent. “The problem is big enough for all of us,” he said.

According to Challenge Program Manager Jaishankar, workshops like the ones at ASES’ past solar conferences and other trainings on technology and finance were an important part of the Challenge program effort. Many low-income stakeholders, as well as many professionals who are women and/or people of color, have had limited experience with solar development and scant opportunities to develop leadership skills due to layers of challenges related to institutionalized biases and poverty. As a result, it was sometimes hard for teams to realize their solar development goals at full scale, or as quickly as they had hoped. For example, the Brooklyn (New York) Solar Pioneers, which won an honorable mention, triggered a relatively modest 300 kW of solar. But their deeper achievement was broadening access to information, job-training and empowerment, to serve future solar development efforts. The Pioneers prepared more than 50 Solar Ambassadors—many of them young people—to share their understanding of solar opportunities across the neighborhood and beyond.

A true effort to change the face of solar energy means accepting that progress cannot unfold in familiar ways. As new solar innovators from disadvantaged communities join what ASES has called the “Race to Renewables”, conventional leaders and newcomers alike may not feel perfectly at ease. Brilliant ideas may come from people who have never submitted a blind abstract or addressed top-level policymakers before. It is also likely that efforts to pioneer solar opportunities within rising communities will face unexpected hurdles. For example, so many Challenge teams faced project delays that the Challenge program ultimately allowed teams to revisit and revise their original solar-development goals. That change, Jaishankar said, fueled greater enthusiasm to succeed in the end.

Karen Soares’, Challenge team from Barber-Scotia College (BSC), a historically black college in Concord, NC, is one of several teams whose indomitable spirits are not reflected on the roster of Challenge award winners. The BSC team aimed to develop 2 MW of solar, including a storage-battery project on the campus, as the centerpiece of a planned renewable energy workforce development program. Soares said her team finally reached agreement with the city, to partner on a 500-kW solar PPA. Unfortunately, that was one month after the deadline to apply for the Challenge competition. That project, and hopefully another that is in the works, will complement a campus greenhouse project that has already been completed. The college, which is still deeply in debt after losing accreditation 15 years ago, now sees its future in training and retraining trades people and entrepreneurs to meet the needs of a new, clean energy economy.

When she presented at the ASES-sponsored Challenge Workshop last year, Soares spoke more from the heart than from concise bullet points. Doing so she won the moral support of her colleagues. “It was wonderful to be there, just to be exposed to so many new ideas and to engage with people who have at least some of the answers,” she said. Soares laughed as she recalled a catch-phrase she shared at that time, which captured how she and some of the other Challenge participants felt about their broadening solar network: “We were inspired to aspire beyond our desire.”

About the Author

Jill Cliburn (cliburnenergy.com) is a leader in community-scale solar and DERs. She is an ASES Fellow

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