Originally published at ILSR.org.
Supporters of clean and affordable energy dream of neighborhoods powered by rooftop solar. In D.C., this vision is becoming reality; the district is en route to 100% renewable energy in just twelve years.
In this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Yesenia Rivera of Solar United Neighbors (SUN). Rivera was Director of D.C. SUN, but has now become Director of Energy Equity and Inclusion. Rivera leads Farrell, SUN board member and Minnesota co-op participant, on a deep dive into the mission of Solar United Neighbors. The two also take the time to highlight SUN’s successes in D.C.; the hard-earned results of SUN member and staff advocacy.
Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.
The Solar United Neighbors Mission
Solar United Neighbors (SUN) is “a national organization dedicated to representing the needs and interests of solar owners and supporters.” Its mission is to help people go solar, join together, and fight for solar rights. Farrell, a solar owner and supporter, serves on the board. Rivera directed the Washington D.C. program, but is now transitioning to the Director of Energy Equity and Inclusion for the national organization.
Solar United Neighbors operates through two channels: helping people navigate the solar market to go solar together and advocating for solar-supportive policies.
Bringing people together to go solar
Solar United Neighbors’s solar co-ops help people go solar as a group. In the states where SUN has active bulk-purchasing co-ops, the organization connects groups of buyers to potential solar installers. By collecting their market power and making a bulk purchase, co-ops can negotiate lower prices — like shopping at Costco. Rivera states this simply:
We focus on bringing people together through bulk purchase campaigns, helping them go solar as a group. That way they can leverage the bulk purchasing power to get discounted pricing and a quality installation.
Once buyers and installers are in touch, Solar United Neighbors steps into the role of technical advisor. Rivera describes this phase as helping the buyers compare “apples to apples,” because it’s important for the group to decide on the installer themselves.
The idea is that the group itself picks the installer they want to work with.
Becoming a co-op member has no cost or commitment. If buyers are unhappy, they are free to walk away.
Farrell discusses his experience as a buyer in a Minnesota SUN bulk purchasing campaign, saying he “thought it was just terrific to have that kind of information going in as a homeowner and as a prospective solar buyer.”
Through its technical assistance, SUN is informing the public and bringing us closer to energy democracy — a clean, distributed energy system in which communities choose where their energy comes from.
… and defend solar rights
Solar United Neighbors often engages in policy battles. In the interview, Rivera describes a few in Washington D.C. that she was involved in.
Washington D.C. has one of the nation’s most ambitious renewable energy targets: 100 renewable energy by 2032. The landmark bill, passed in 2018, also includes a 10 percent solar carve-out — though the solar goal has a longer term. Rivera says that SUN lobbied for this bill, especially the solar portion. She also says that the organization has fought to make the clean energy transition based on equity.
In addition to this monumental policy, SUN has fought for the solar rights of individual neighborhoods. In Washington D.C., where many of the neighborhoods are historic zones, solar panels cannot be on front-facing roofs. Homeowner associations used this rule and the onerous bureaucratic process to prevent residents from going solar. In one case, says Rivera, the neighborhood board would not allow rooftop solar that could be seen from across a bridge.
We had several cases during our solar for all work where we had low income families that wanted to go solar and lower their energy burden, but because they live inside historic zones, the board would not approve those solar permits.
Thanks to Solar United Neighbors advocacy, the historic preservation review board has changed its policies so that more residents can embrace clean energy and historic preservation.
“Solar for All” in Washington D.C.
Washington D.C.’s Solar for All program plans to bring solar to 100,000 families by 2032 and reduce their energy bills by 50 percent. As a first round grantee, Solar United Neighbors brought solar to 73 families in the first year of the program. Although SUN is no longer participating, other organizations are jumping in to ramp up community solar subscriptions and reach the 2032 goal.
The program is funded by the utility fees called alternative compliance payments. These are the fines utilities must pay if they have not reached D.C.’s renewable portfolio standard target. Rivera says that this fee collected close to 26 million dollars in 2018 — all of which funds low-income solar. Once utilities get closer to their renewable energy targets, the district’s green bank will take over program funding.
D.C. also has a solar renewable energy credit (SREC), which Rivera says has the highest value in the nation. Produced from each megawatt-hour of electricity made from solar, utilities purchase these to get closer to the renewable portfolio standard requirement. For every credit they fall short of the District’s requirement, the utility must pay $500, so the credits are quite valuable and greatly incentivize solar development.
Why solar must be for all
When Farrell asks about the importance of the D.C. program, Rivera replies that the clean energy transition must not leave anyone behind.
People in the lowest income brackets face the highest energy burden; paying their energy bills takes up a great percentage of their income. For renters, who have little control over the energy efficiency of their home, the energy burden can be even higher. Those who face a high energy burden have the most to gain from rooftop solar, but the least means to make it happen.
If we want solar to move from a boutique niche industry into… part of the solution towards climate, then we need everybody to go solar… and that means we’re going to have to help low to moderate income folks find the finances to go solar.
Plus, since the program is funded by alternative compliance fees, ratepayers have already paid to support the solar market. When the Solar for All program helps ratepayers who need financial support the most, everyone wins.
Bringing “Solar for All” to all states
As Rivera moves from D.C. to her national role, so does the Solar for All program. Solar United Neighbors is working hard to replicate this program in other states, though it has to get creative with funding. Right now, Rivera says she is working with the city of Indianapolis to create a low-income solar pilot program. Rivera and SUN have also started conversations in Pennsylvania and Ohio. In the end, this process will happen step by step, says Rivera. SUN will develop each program when the opportunity arises.
We want that energy democracy fight to include everyone, across all of our state programs
Although the organization has chapters in 11 states, anyone can become a member. Members can get advice on buying solar – from incentives to logistics – or on maintaining their existing solar array.
See these ILSR resources for more behind the story:
- Other Local Energy Rules episodes on Solar United Neighbors, with director Anya Schoolman:
- Read ILSR solar reports on community solar:
For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
This is episode 103 of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.
Featured Photo Credit: Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)