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

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.

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

  1. Hello Ivy, thanks for all you do. In your referenced Virginia Mercury article you say regarding Arcadia “The website provides no information indicating where the facilities are” but when I log into my account it does tell me where the recs are from each month. This month mine says –

    South Plains
    Lockney, TX

    South Plains wind farm is located on the high plains of the Llano Estacado in Floyd County, Texas. The region’s exceptionally windy climate keeps this farm generating around 890,000 megawatt hours of clean energy each year — enough to power over 70,000 homes.

    • Thank you, Mark. It’s good to know that they tell you where the RECs are from once you’re a customer, but that location proves my point. Texas is not on our grid, so it doesn’t reduce your own use of fossil fuels, and they are building wind farms there not because people will buy wind RECs but because wind is the cheapest form of energy available. Arcadia can buy the RECs for dirt cheap because unlike Virginia, Texas has no RPS. In a very real sense you’re subsidizing cheap power in Texas. (Not that prioritizing “cheap” turned out well for them last winter.)

  2. Fantastic! Folding the cost of a solar system into the capital cost at the time of construction is such a great way to ensure ultimate cost savings for these LMI homeowners!!!

  3. Thanks, Ivy, for this endorsement. Jeff Heie is a quiet ‘climate warrior’ and works on many fronts, even helping to move our ‘Defenders’ sculpture, no small task. We give to ‘Give Solar’ automatically every month. I so hope a lot of people will respond to your well founded trust in this project.

  4. Continuing on the discussion regarding Arcadia buying dirt cheap RECs in Texas, I don’t mind promoting renewable energy anywhere. Arcadia provides 50% wind energy(even though not directly on VA grid) for no extra cost to me. They must use some of the money they earn for providing user support and operational expenses. One can always donate to GiveSolar which not only gets solar energy to our grid, it also helps low income households. Doing both can make one feel extra good!

  5. I have recently contacted SVEC about a community solar project in Woodstock. They have no such program
    Whatsup with that

    • The only community solar programs I know about in Virginia are through BARC (Bath County area) and Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, which has a good one that other coops ought to emulate. You coop members own your electric utility, so make some noise!

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