A small-scale solar project with a big impact in Georgia

Solar installer. Image by Alex Csiki from Pixabay
Image by Alex Csiki from Pixabay

The LaGrange Housing Authority in LaGrange, Georgia has found ways to advance renewable initiatives in a state that does not offer the kinds of support, programs, or incentives for renewable energy that is offered in other places. The Housing Authority’s approach to building interest in solar through a small-scale solar project provides a model for other communities that lack significant front-end capital and state-level policy support but still desire to progress energy transition in their communities.

Partnership development

The LaGrange Housing Authority focuses on addressing the deficit of safe and affordable housing in the city of LaGrange. It provides 400 units of housing to the community and offers many community-focused programs.

In 2017, Groundswell (a nonprofit that develops and supports shared solar projects) and The Solutions Project (an intermediary supporter of innovative renewable energy projects) had been assessing project opportunities. Groundswell had existing relationships in Georgia and began exploring a partnership with the LaGrange Housing Authority. The Solutions Project developed a series of rapid response grants ($10,000–$25,000) to support community-led efforts and development of local, small-scale solar energy initiatives. This prioritizes projects in disadvantaged communities that do not have strong state policy support and also may leverage small projects to move future project expansion forward. While this can be a risky investment strategy, The Solutions Project believes that supporting front-line communities in areas like the American South, where there is limited financing for renewable energy projects, could help catalyze policy action and expand solar in new markets, while also proving that there is great capacity and community support throughout the U.S. to expand solar.

Groundswell played a key role in connecting The Solutions Project with the LaGrange Housing Authority. Groundswell Marketing Director, Becca Eiland, lives in LaGrange and was following the Housing Authority’s innovative community programs. From after-school programs, home-ownership classes and even connecting high school students to college opportunities, the Housing Authority looks to improve the lives of residents and position them for independence and success. The LaGrange Housing Authority had the flexibility by being in the service territory of a municipally-owned utility; therefore, its existing community outreach model could be adapted to include renewables.

Groundswell applied for The Solutions Project grant and $15,000 in funds were awarded for a small-scale solar project. The Solutions Project trusted community partners to best understand what the project should be and gave them the flexibility to design, adapt, and implement it. Groundswell also provided support to the LaGrange team as it explored various ideas. The team considered a rooftop solar project on a single-family home but they were concerned that it would not benefit enough residents or stimulate the level of community involvement that they wanted. As a result, they decided to install a SmartFlower unit, a ground-mounted all-in-one solar system fitted with a tracker that follows the sun’s movement.

Gathering community support

Groundswell served as project manager and the LaGrange team lead the project and made any impacting decisions while involving community members. The team selected the area between the LaGrange Housing Authority offices and their community center to install a 2.5-kW SmartFlower. This location allowed for community members to regularly see the unit. The team partnered with local businesses, and willing volunteers, to store and transport the unit. The local businesses also assisted with pouring the concrete and some technical support, despite the Facilities Director at LaGrange, Earnest Pickett, completed most of the installation and maintenance work with his staff. Pickett envisions this as a first step in engaging the community in a long-term plan to achieve net-zero energy housing for all residents in Housing Authority properties.

The SmartFlower is currently powering the La Grange Housing Authority Offices, resulting in an average monthly savings of approximately $50. The savings are being used for additional after-school enrichment programs. School-aged students are also being educated about the SmartFlower and the benefits of renewable energy. Pickett stops the SmartFlower so the youth can interact with it and learn how it works. Some of the students have already expressed an interest in renewable energy careers.

The LaGrange Housing Authority, Groundswell, The Solutions Project and the City of LaGrange had a ribbon-cutting event, in the summer of 2019, to celebrate the installation of SmartFlower. Over 100 residents, including LaGrange’s municipal staff and the Regional Director of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, gathered to see the SmartFlower in action and to congratulate the community. To commemorate the event, students participating in the program created a mural representing the SmartFlower and what it means to their community. They included visuals and messages about a clean environment and a sustainable future.

Heard and Pickett, along with their team, are working toward expanding their environmental efforts through tankless water heaters, energy-efficient appliances and rainwater collections systems. They are also developing additional clean energy projects, such as, pilot homes with four-kW roof-mounted solar PV systems. The broader goal is to provide renewable energy and efficiency development to all 27 lots managed by the Housing Authority, servicing low-income families and seniors. Projected household savings is estimated to be $300 per month, which is significant for LaGrange household incomes. The high visibility of the project has provided opportunities to apply for Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and State of Georgia grants to advance this project.

The LaGrange Housing Authority’s SmartFlower project demonstrates the leverage that can be gained from a small-scale project to create a large impact through community engagement, local business partnerships and philanthropic support. Currently, Groundswell and The Solutions Project are working with LaGrange on a possible second-phase project.

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Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a Project Director for the Clean Energy States Alliance, where she works on low and moderate income solar. Prior to this role, Nicole participated in CESA’s DOE Solar Energy Strategies grant as a consultant to the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, working primarily with community groups in the state. She is a well-known climate change expert, sea-level researcher, and environmental justice advocate. A Guatemalan immigrant, she has worked to address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on under-resourced communities across the US. She served as the climate science and community advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists, as the Florida field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, and as an environmental blogger for Latina Lista. Before that, she was the assistant director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, and coordinated the Florida Climate Institute’s state university consortium. She co-authored a series of technical papers on sea level rise projections, impacts, and preparedness. Her activism and initiative on climate change earned her an invitation from First Lady Michelle Obama, to be her special guest at the 2015 State of the Union address.

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