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Everybody talks about bringing solar to low-income households. This guy is doing it (and you can, too).

Ivy Main's picture
Publisher Powerforthepeopleva

Ivy Main is a writer, lawyer, and environmental advocate, and volunteers extensively with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. In addition to lobbying in the Virginia General Assembly for...

  • Member since 2018
  • 160 items added with 365,214 views
  • Aug 11, 2021
Photo credit Don Crawford for GiveSolar

Regular readers of this blog know I discourage Virginians from spending their money on so-called green energy offerings from Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power, or REC sellers like Arcadia. They might make you feel better about the electricity you use, but the best products do little to put new solar projects on the grid, and the worst are actually counter-productive

There is a better way to put solar on the grid and salve your conscience, while also cutting out the middleman. Take the money you were going to pay to Dominion Energy for its Green Power Program (or are already paying, if I didn’t warn you off soon enough), and give it to someone who will put actual solar panels on actual houses in Virginia.

That someone might be Jeff Heie, whose non-profit, GiveSolar, works with low-income home-builder Habitat for Humanity in Rockingham County, Virginia to outfit Habitat homes with rooftop solar. The homeowner gets a 4-kilowatt system that cuts their electricity bill by $40; they commit to sending half that amount back to GiveSolar to help pay for the cost of solar on future Habitat homes. 

GiveSolar keeps installation costs down by holding solar “barn-raisings” using volunteers from the community and a solar company, Green Hill Solar, that is willing to install at cost. As a result, a 4-kW system can be installed for $5,000, about half price. 

Eventually GiveSolar expects its Solar Seed Fund to be self-funding as owners of Habitat homes send in their $20 per month repayments, but meanwhile the organization needs donations to get the program up and running. Heie hopes to raise $100,000 to put solar on 20 homes.

It sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that Dominion reports it has 30,000 Virginia customers enrolled in its Green Power Program. If all those customers are currently spending an average of just $5 per month on pointless RECs, and if they sent that money to GiveSolar instead, Heie would raise 150% of his goal every month

Indeed, Heie has plans to take his model to other Habitat for Humanity affiliates around Virginia; he told me he has already heard from five that are interested in installing solar. His approach has also won him the support of other nonprofits, including Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, which is helping to raise $20,000 for the first four projects in Rockingham County and has secured a $10,000 matching grant.

There is a huge need for projects like these. Many low-income Virginia residents spend more than 6 percent of their income on electricity and home heating. Legislators have responded with programs providing funding for low-income energy efficiency programs; capping energy costs for customers who qualify under a percentage-of-income calculation; authorizing Dominion to install solar on some low-income homes (with the utility’s usual profit-margin, and without the barn-raising); and establishing a shared solar program that, if successful, will give some low-income residents the ability to buy electricity from community solar facilities. 

But the potential for rooftop solar to lower energy costs and displace fossil fuels is so huge, and these government programs so limited, that there’s still plenty of room for GiveSolar’s inexpensive, hands-on, and self-sustaining approach. The Habitat homeowners who benefit pay the money back over time, creating a virtuous cycle. Donors don’t have to guess whether their money is building solar projects; they can see it happen, and even take part. Neighbors help neighbors, and by doing so, help the planet.

Allen Putnam's picture
Allen Putnam on Aug 11, 2021

This is totally incorrect thinking.  Rooftop solar is placed where the grid may necessarily not need it causing issues for the utility that must distribute it.  The customer who installs it bears no responsibility for these increased cost and likely receives a subsidy in the form of reimbursement of the total cost per kilowatt hour when the value is avoided cost (about 2 - 3 cents in most places).  Community scale solar is the answer for solar; although solar is not the answer to decarbonization.  

Katie McCaskey's picture
Katie McCaskey on Aug 11, 2021

Thank you, I was unaware of the GiveSolar program but can attest for the need in that area of the state (and of course, across the country).  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 12, 2021

"But the potential for rooftop solar to...displace fossil fuels is so huge..."

The potential for rooftop solar depends on many factors: latitude, weather, southern exposure, etc. By making some assumptions, we could come up with an estimate of how "huge" that potential might be in Virginia. But assumptions can be dangerous - they can easily be distorted by personal biases. Most accurate would be finding an average based on empirical data, as much as we can find.

Fortunately, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has done just that, and has a convenient calculator to show the average output of a rooftop solar array anywhere in the country. In Richmond, VA a 4-kW, fixed-tilt solar array will, over the course of a year, generate 5,485 kWh of electricity.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration tells us the average household in Virginia consumes 14,500 kWh of electricity each year. Does that mean, on average, each Virginia household could generate 5,485/14,500 = 38% of its electricity from the sun?

Yes - but it would require making at least one of two assumptions: 1) the average consumption of each resident doesn't exceed the average output of their solar array (for a 4kW array in Virginia, that's 640 watts), and/or 2) batteries or other storage devices can be used to effectively shift energy from sunlight from when it's available, to when it's used.

In sunny California, where there's more sunlight and it's more consistent, system planners assumed batteries could be used to shift sunlight from the middle of sunny days to offset electricity at ~8:00 PM during peak consumption. They were wrong. Last week, CA Governor Gavin Newsom declared a State of Emergency - in coming weeks, our grid will collapse unless drastic steps (all of which rely on consuming more fossil fuel) are taken.

This is empirical reality, Ivy. System planners, unfortunately, relied on assumptions, which can be easily distorted by personal biases. Assumptions can be dangerous.

Ivy Main's picture
Thank Ivy for the Post!
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