Community-driven solar: a diverse collaboration

My name is Laura Rigell, and I’m in my senior year at Swarthmore College. I am double majoring in Political Science and Sustainable Land Use to pursue my commitment to climate action. In high school, I learned about the threat of runaway climate change — an issue that would shape my life choices for years to come. From 2010 to 2013, I attended three United Nations climate negotiations, co-founded a statewide network of high school environmentalists, and pioneered a national coalition of students working for fossil fuel divestment.

In my work at the state, national, and global levels, my perception of fairness led me to become an advocate for climate justice, striving to act in solidarity with those most affected by climate change and the fossil-fuel industry. I spent the first two summers of my college career in West Virginia, where I was incredibly moved by place-based efforts to address climate change equitably. This year, I decided to pursue similar work closer to campus. Through the Solar Ambassador Program, a year long fellowship with RE-volv, my teammates and I are spearheading a solar project in North Philadelphia for a community center called Serenity House.

When a posting for the Solar Ambassador Program caught my eye in the spring of 2015, I became excited by the idea of solarizing Serenity House in partnership with RE-volv. Serenity House is a community center in North Philadelphia run by the Arch Street United Methodist Church. At that point, Swarthmore College students had been collaborating with members of the Serenity House community for three years and we had already honed in on a goal of leveraging solar power toward the revitalization of North Philadelphia.

The community served by Serenity House is a low-income community of color beset with poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse. Serenity House provides a healing and visionary space amidst these challenges. Over the past four years, our college-community collaboration has launched several projects in the Serenity House community, including an initiative called Serenity Soular aiming to expand solar access and create green jobs in North Philadelphia. This year, our Serenity Soular team will fund solar for the roof of Serenity House, working as RE-volv Solar Ambassadors. Our partnership with RE-volv fits perfectly with our ongoing work to advance racial and economic justice through the lens of sustainability in North Philadelphia.

We have chosen Solar States, a triple-bottom-line solar company based in North Philadelphia, as the installer. Solar States has agreed to allow two neighborhood residents to serve as apprentices during the installation. We are stipending these two apprentices from a 2015 crowdfunding campaign. This job shadowing opportunity is modeling how solar can help create economic sustainability.

As RE-volv Solar Ambassadors, we are looking forward to raising awareness about the benefits of solar and seeing an installation start-to-finish this spring semester. In January, one of my fellow students filmed a three-minute video to tell the story of our campaign. The video features John Bowie, a member of Serenity Soular from North Philadelphia; Micah Gold-Markel, Solar States; and myself, each talking about why this project is important to us.

With RE-volv’s support, we launched our crowdfunding campaign on February 16. We are crowdfunding for the installation of a 5.6 kW solar energy system on the roof of Serenity House. In addition to meeting our fundraising goal, we aim to engage people in the movement for climate justice. So far, we have held two educational events to keep up momentum during the campaign — one at the Swarthmore College Intercultural Center and one at Serenity House. At each event we told the story of Serenity Soular and screened our RE-volv crowdfunding video. We are now preparing for another educational event to be held at Arch Street United Methodist Church. We plan to hold a silent auction, which will include solar-powered phone chargers.

Through my participation in the RE-volv Solar Ambassador program, I have learned how solar panels pay for themselves with environmental and economic benefits. The project has also given me experience in project management. I am eager to apply my new understanding of the solar industry toward the puzzle of financing solar for low-income residences in the neighborhood. I am proud of my achievement of bringing together multiple stakeholders, including Arch Street United Methodist Church, Solar States, and RE-volv, to achieve this upcoming solar installation in North Philadelphia.

Please help us provide solar energy to this community center in North Philadelphia by donating to our RE-volv crowdfunding campaign at You can help us fund this installation and “soularize” Serenity House!



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Hailing from east Tennessee, Laura has been an avid advocate for climate justice since 2010. From halls of the United Nations to mountain hollers impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining, Laura's activism has spanned from the local to global scale. While an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, she has become involved with Serenity House, a healing space and outreach center of Arch Street United Methodist Church. Since, the collaboration between Swarthmore students and North Philadelphia community members has sprouted many projects advancing sustainability in the community. One of these projects is Serenity Soular, an initiative to share the benefits of solar power with North Philadelphia, a low-income community of color. Laura is now seeking a Masters of City Planning at Penn Design, in order to pursue her interest in sustainable community development.

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