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Solar brings savings — and a community center — to low-income apartments in D.C.

I recently spent a day installing solar panels on the roof of a low-income housing development in a southeast neighborhood in Washington, D.C., sweating out the 90-degree heat and thinking about people who may not be able to afford to keep cool.

Summer Research Intern Madi Lynch, Keon Coulter and Medha Surampudy on the roof of Parkchester Apartments. (Source: GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic)

According to a 2016 report from Energy Efficiency for All, low-income households pay more of their disposable income on energy — what the report calls, the “energy burden.” In D.C., that burden may be anywhere from 4 percent to 10 percent of a low-income family’s budget, the report noted,  well above the national average of 3.5 percent for all households.

The average income at the Parkchester Apartments — where I was helping to install solar — is around $10,000 — and many of the aging units here are far from energy efficient.

This is where organizations such as GRID Alternatives and the NHP Foundation step in. GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that makes renewable energy accessible to underserved communities, and the NHP Foundation, a nonprofit housing developer, have partnered to bring a 118-kilowatt (kW) solar array to the buildings of Parkchester.

I was there as part of a group of 19 volunteers from the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), who spent two days at Parkchester, helping GRID install panels on two of the community’s nine buildings.

GRID Alternatives employees (blue shirts) joined by SEPA staff (white shirts) for a volunteer solar install at Parkchester Apartments. (Source: GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic)

Projected energy savings from those solar panels are enabling the NHP Foundation to renovate the property, installing new, energy-efficient air conditioning systems and other home appliances, and developing a community center.  The upgrades could cut Parkchester residents’ electric bills by 30-35 percent, said Nicole Steele, Executive Director of GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic.

In the context of recent news that the D.C. Renewable Energy Development Fund and its Solar For All program would see a $5.5 million funding cut, I was very eager to see GRID Alternatives’ work in person, and witness how solar installations benefit low-income communities.

 

Solar Savings Pay for Community Space

The installation at Parkchester Apartments is GRID Alternatives’ first multifamily project in D.C.  Spread over 16 arrays, the 118-kW system is sized to fully power all common areas in the 93-unit development. The installation is projected to save 3,077 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere in its lifetime.

With no common-area electric bills to pay, NHP, which owns Parkchester, can direct resources to other projects that help the families in the community. In addition to energy-efficient upgrades for the apartments, the savings will go toward a community center and green spaces for the development.

“Community space is a half-million dollar project that doesn’t produce income,” said Mansur Abdul-Malik, Assistant Vice President at NHP. “Most people would leave it alone. With proceeds from solar, we are able to do this work – it is one of the direct connections to the benefits of solar.”

 

Installing solar from the ground up

Like many in the team from SEPA, I arrived at Parkchester with little knowledge of what my day would entail. Most days, I spend my time reading and writing about renewable technologies, but this was my first experience actually installing solar panels and seeing the whole process, from the ground up.

Corinne St Laurent (left) and Tiffany Curry of SEPA work on rewiring a solar panel at Parkchester Apartments. (SOURCE: GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic)

Outfitted with hard hats and harnesses, we were roped to the roof, where we measured the layouts for the installation, carried heavy concrete ballasts, and helped to wire the panels. As the temperature climbed toward 90 degrees, the sun beat down on the panels, which were hot to touch. The potential of the technology for turning that sunlight into electricity was immediately clear.

The SEPA volunteers were one of many groups who are helping GRID at the Parkchester Apartments. Groups ranging from students to employees from for-profit corporations have harnessed up to volunteer for the year-long installation.

Kristelle Batucal, a SolarCorps Fellow at GRID Alternatives, said volunteering is a great way for people in the energy and environment fields “to touch solar.” “They work with staff members at their organizations that they normally don’t interact with, and also getting on a roof is a lot of fun!”

The SolarCorps program is one of the ways GRID provides job training for individuals getting started in solar — with a special focus on women, students, veterans and low-income, underserved communities in general.  Keon Coulter, a Construction Fellow, frequently works with volunteers and directed us as we took measurements and laid out the concrete ballasts for the installations.

“Volunteers are quick (learners) and they pick up fast”, said Keon. “I’m a people person and I’m good at getting people to get the work done. I want volunteers to ask questions so I can explain what’s going on.”

 

Rooftop diversity — and jobs

Coulter, 22, was first introduced to GRID through the Green Zone Environmental Program (GZEP), part of the D.C.’s Summer Youth Employment Program.  Run through the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, the program is designed to give work experience to youths aged 14-24 in the energy and environmental fields.

In 2016, GZEP launched its Solar Plus program through which GRID took 15 job trainees. These trainees were involved in solar installations and participated in related workshops. At the end of the summer, GRID hired two job trainees — including Coulter — and one GZEP team leader as SolarCorps Fellows.

In addition to his work as a Construction Fellow, Coulter is also now working with a new crop of kids from GZEP.

“I love helping people, it’s one of my biggest passions. GRID helped this come to life, and I found a new passion in solar. I can relate to the GZEP kids and I’ll be able to help them understand what is going on here,” he said.

This year, GRID is partnering with the Department of Energy and Environment and the Department of Employment Services for Solar Works DC, a low-income solar installation and job training program. GRID will run the year-round program to train D.C. residents in solar installation while increasing solar capacity in the city. The summer cohort will be comprised of GZEP participants.

The installation process was grueling. Due to the heat and my own inexperience with construction work, I was exhausted by the end of the day. But working with GRID Alternatives and the NHP Foundation made the work extremely valuable and educational. It showed me the critical role that solar energy can play in low-income communities, and the necessity of having a holistic approach to community development.

According to Nicole Steele at GRID, following the recent announcement of cuts to D.C.’s Renewable Energy Development Fund, the city’s solar community came together on short notice and started advocating about the need to support low-income solar.

“The City Council now knows support for low-income solar crosses many lenses and interests,” she said. “We see a shining future for solar in the District.”

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