Community Solar in Action: A Trip to the Dover Solar Garden

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This past week, the Boston-based members of the Solstice team (and honorary canine solar ambassador, Kugo) took a trip to visit our new community solar farm in Dover, MA. This 1.4 MW facility supplies electricity to local residents at a reduced price, and sits on top of a capped landfill next to the town’s transfer station. It’s an ideal place for a solar farm, as the land can’t be used for anything else due to the toxicity of the old landfill. It’s in a relatively remote area, surrounded by greenery, but participants can still visit the source of their cheap, clean electricity when they come to the dump to drop off their trash. Best of all, the land belongs to Hale Reservation, and rents from the solar farm lease go directly to helping them conserve this beautiful nature.

The project is expected to offset approximately 1,300 metric tons of CO2 each year, equivalent to removing 270 cars from the roads or planting 1,250 acres of forest. The project will also create local jobs and help Dover achieve Green Community status, which will allow the town to apply for additional grant money from the state. It’s truly a win-win-win-win for everyone involved!

Our Community Outreach Associate, Madeline, and customer Doug, who serendipitously visited the solar garden at the same time as the team.

Our Community Outreach Associate, Madeline, and customer Doug, who serendipitously visited the solar garden at the same time as the team.

One of our customers, Doug, happened to stop by with his family, and was happy to indulge us in another photoshoot with our Community Outreach Associate, Madeline, who had guided him through the Solstice enrollment process over the past couple of months. When Doug signed up with Solstice, he was allotted a specific amount of the electricity generated by the panels, based on his past average energy usage. Through a mechanism called ‘virtual net metering', Doug receives a credit on his bill based on how much electricity his particular portion of the farm produces. Doug doesn’t own the panels, he subscribes to their benefits: that’s why there’s no upfront cost for him. His participation through Solstice guarantees savings on his electricity bills, and he's happy to know he is supporting clean energy, benefiting his local community and the planet as a whole.

What is Community Solar?

By Forrest Watkins

Our customers are right to ask: just what is community solar? It may seem like a simple question, but the term covers a range of different offerings, and it’s important that you understand your options before you sign a contract.

At the most fundamental level, community solar involves a shared solar installation that customers can tap into, offsetting their energy usage with renewable sources and receiving savings on their electricity bill. This allows people whose roofs are unsuitable for solar panels--too shady, too old, or the wrong orientation/angle--and people who own condos or apartments to access clean energy.

A community solar farm in Dover, MA.

A community solar farm in Dover, MA.

Where are community solar farms located?

We’ve all seen solar panels going up on rooftops, and many of us have seen pictures of utility solar farms that go on for miles. Community solar farms generally fall somewhere in the middle. Many community energy installations are built on capped landfills, open fields, or the roofs of warehouses, supplying energy to the electricity grid and allowing nearby residents to finally take part in the solar revolution.

What makes community solar possible?

Community solar takes advantage of rules similar to the ones that give energy savings to households with rooftop solar panels. “Net metering” allows people who produce their own solar energy to sell that energy back into the grid. For every watt they produce, their utility will give them a credit that they can use to pay for their future energy use. (You can think of this as “running back the meter”).

For community solar, utilities use a process called virtual net metering, which means that when your community solar farm produces energy, you get the credit on your utility bill, as if you had produced it on your own roof.

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Ownership or Subscription?

Generally speaking, there are two types of community solar. In the ownership model, you buy or lease part of a solar farm for an upfront fee. Every month after you sign your contract, you’ll see a credit on your utility bill for the energy that the panels generate--allowing you to earn back your investment over the life of the contract. Owning the panels may also make you eligible for federal tax credits and state incentives.

This model provides solar access for many new customers, but there are many more people who don’t have the savings to afford such a significant upfront cost. That’s why we have a soft spot in our hearts for the second kind of community solar.

The Subscription Model

Under this option, the customer pays no upfront fee at all and instead receives their solar electricity as a monthly service. We help them sign up for enough panels to cover their energy use, and then they can enjoy their discounted solar electricity. As with the ownership model, participants see a credit on their utility bill for the energy that their panels generate. Customer savings vary depending on the geography and solar developer, but they usually range from 5 to 15 percent.

Because there’s no upfront cost, this kind of contract allows new communities to access solar energy. And at Solstice, we’re pushing that boundary even further. Most community solar companies require a 20-year contract and a 700 FICO credit score to sign on to these community solar contracts, but we want to change that. By offering shorter contracts and finding better ways to qualify people for our projects, we hope to bring community solar savings to renters, young people and low-income communities--to those who need those savings most.

Every day at Solstice, we meet more people who are interested in going solar. We encourage everyone to do their own research and find out what’s best for them and their families, whether it’s putting panels on their roof or enrolling in a community solar farm.

Want to go solar? Let us know on this form, and we’ll help you explore your options.

Douglas, one of our customers at the Dover Community Solar Farm in Massachusetts, with Solstice Outreach member Madeline Iffert. Madeline helped walk Douglas through the signup process, and he'll start seeing his net metering credits once the solar farm goes online this summer.

Douglas, one of our customers at the Dover Community Solar Farm in Massachusetts, with Solstice Outreach member Madeline Iffert. Madeline helped walk Douglas through the signup process, and he'll start seeing his net metering credits once the solar farm goes online this summer.

Solar for All: Sparking Community Solar Inclusion

By Kelly Roache

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It is said that it is “expensive to be poor.” This is a reality faced by millions of low-to-moderate income Americans--and home energy bills are no exception. Despite beating fossil fuels on both price and growth, the potential of renewable energy to relieve this burden remains largely unrealized. Through innovative approaches to customer creditworthiness and financial inclusion, Solstice is working to expand affordable, accessible community solar for all.

Power struggle: the low-income burden

Low-to-moderate income households face severely limited access to renewable energy. While the 49 million American households earning under $40,000 annually account for 40% of homes, they comprise less than 5% of solar installations. At the same time, these individuals bear a higher energy burden, spending a disproportionate share of their earnings toward utility bills, even as energy costs decline. Low-income households pay on average three times as much for energy as their wealthier counterparts. They likewise experience the brunt of the ill effects of climate change, producing disproportionate impacts. For instance, race and income are closely correlated with proximity of one’s home to a coal plant.

For low-income households, shared solar short-circuits

Community-shared solar holds the promise to level the playing field by dramatically increasing access to and affordability of clean energy. After all, solar gardens will constitute up to half of the solar market by 2020. However, low-to-moderate income individuals still face steep obstacles to community solar participation. For instance, many don’t meet outdated FICO credit score requirements of 680 or more, which are intended - but hardly proven - to mitigate customer defaults. Half of Americans have a credit score less than 680, while one in five has no credit score. Thus, such an offering fails to serve low-to-moderate income Americans who could use solar savings the most.

Solstice aims to energize community solar’s promise

Solstice is expanding low-to-moderate income community solar inclusion financial inclusion innovations. Supported by an award from the Department of Energy, we are combining data science and pilot projects to challenge market assumptions about low- or no-credit households. Solstice is developing an alternative qualifying metric - or “EnergyScore” - that is both more inclusive and accurate in predicting customer defaults than FICO. This EnergyScore incorporates information on utility payment history to enhance the creditworthiness of households who make consistent, on-time bill payments. Solstice will implement the EnergyScore to qualify low-to-moderate income individuals for community solar in pilot projects, thereby continuing to build the body of evidence required to scale this inclusion.

Solstice remains committed to community solar for all. Through our work to increase access and affordability for low-to-moderate income households, we look forward to realizing a just, democratic, and bright energy future.

Going Solar: Understand Your Options

By Isaac Maze-Rothstein, Jonah Bader, Emily Claps, and Danny Tobin

These days, everyone seems to be talking about going solar, but when you start looking into the different options, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The terms are confusing, and “one size does not fit all.” Read on for help on navigating the many options available.  

Rooftop solar (putting solar panels on your roof) is still the most common way to go solar, and the main options are:

  • Buying the solar panel system outright with your own savings;
  • Getting a solar loan;
  • Leasing your roof.

Buying the panels outright is the best financial deal, with a yearly return on investment of 40-70%, but it can cost $10,000-$30,000 upfront, even after tax breaks and incentives. Solar loans can make this option more affordable (learn about offers in Massachusetts here), but financial institutions often require a high credit score. For people who are turned off by the high upfront cost or have credit scores under 680, leasing panels can be a great alternative.

If you lease your system, you sign an agreement with the company that owns the solar panels. In exchange for a set monthly payment, they install the panels on your property, and you enjoy the electricity produced by the panels for the length of your contract. They’ll be responsible for all the maintenance and repairs. This can be a great opportunity for anyone who is primarily interested in using renewable energy, rather than maximizing the financial benefits of solar power.

Unfortunately, those three options still leave a lot of people without a path to go solar. For starters, you usually need a credit score above 680 and need to own your own roof, which stymies many renters and condo owners. Even if you do meet these criteria, your roof must be strong enough to support solar panels for the 20+ years of the system’s lifetime. The roof must be large enough to host a significant number of panels. The roof must have southern or western exposure to sunlight without too much shade from nearby trees. The roof cannot be slate. The list of obstacles goes on, and up until recently, about 80% of Americans were precluded from going solar for all these reasons and more.

Community solar has changed that. Community solar is an innovative new solution that enables households to go solar by tapping into an offsite solar garden. These gardens, which are often rows of freestanding solar panels on open fields, are situated in ideal locations to generate electricity that is transmitted to the power grid. Renters, condo owners, and other people that were previously excluded from the market can purchase the electricity from those panels (at a discount compared to normal electricity rates), much like if you were leasing the panels on your roof. The best part is, though, nothing needs to be installed at your house—no panels or wires. There’s no upfront cost, and you’ll save a bit on electricity every single year.

If community solar sounds like the right option for you, or if you want to discuss all these options further, fill out this form and we’ll be in touch soon.

 

Solar Technology Harnesses the Power of the Sun

By Emily Claps, Danny Tobin, and Jonah Bader

Every hour, Earth receives enough energy from the Sun to meet humanity’s entire global energy demand for a year. In 18 days, the sunlight that hits Earth’s surface carries as much energy as all of the coal, oil, and natural gas that remains on the planet. In other words, there is no shortage of solar energy—the challenge is capturing it.

Due to a host of factors, ranging from the Earth’s reflectivity to the limitations of technology, it is unlikely we will ever come close to harnessing all of that energy. Yet the amount of incoming solar radiation is so staggering that we just need to capture a tiny portion of it to bring us well on our way to a carbon-free future.

With advances in solar technology over the last decade, prices have plummeted and people all over the world are tapping into this underutilized power source. But how does the technology work?

Solar panels consist of a set of photovoltaic (PV) cells, which are essentially a sandwich of two oppositely charged slices of a semiconductor (a material whose ability to conduct electricity varies with conditions), such as silicon. An incoming photon (a particle of light) knocks electrons free from the atoms on the negative slice. Since electrons are negatively charged, they are driven to flow towards the positive side. By directing those electrons to flow through a wire, however, we create an electric current that can be used to power any appliance or electronic device.

Basic schematic of a photovoltaic solar panel.

Basic schematic of a photovoltaic solar panel.

As long as the Sun keeps shining, it serves as a virtually unlimited energy source. This is why solar power is considered a form of “renewable energy” or “sustainable energy”. Solar power is also a form of “clean energy” or “green energy” because the panels produce no greenhouse gas emissions, or emissions of any kind, in the process of generating electricity. (The only emissions associated with solar power come during the manufacturing, installation, and disposal phases of the panels’ life cycle.)

The Sun makes life possible for almost every organism on Earth, and with solar power, it’s also our lifeline to a better life and a safer future. Learn more about how you can go solar with Solstice.

The Solstice Team

By Jonah Bader

A company is only as strong as its team members. That’s why today we are highlighting our various team members and explaining a little bit about their background and their role at Solstice.

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STEVE MOILANEN, CO-FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT

Steve has spent years working in support of social change at the White House Office Energy and Climate Change, the United Nations Environment Programme, and Obama for America. He manages internal operations.

STEPH SPEIRS, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO

Steph is a social entrepreneur and community builder with years of operational experience at d.light India, Acumen Fund, the White House National Security Council, and the Obama for America field campaign. Her focus is external relationships.

SANDHYA MURALI, CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER

Sandhya began her career in investment banking for Barclays, where she was also deeply involved in Barclays Philanthropy’s volunteer work. More recently, she worked for a social enterprise in Peru called Buen Power Peru. She is Solstice’s financial wizard and also directs the platform development.

MARK HOFF, HEAD OF OUTREACH

Mark brings over 20 years of experience in the energy field at companies like HomeServe, Energy Intelligence, and Cambridge Energy Research Associates. He is overseeing Solstice's outreach strategy as we ramp up our efforts in Massachusetts and expand to New York.

ISAAC MAZE-ROTHSTEIN, COMMUNITY OUTREACH COORDINATOR

Isaac has organized environmental and political campaigns across the country for MassPIRG, Environment America, and the Campaign to Elect Elizabeth Warren. Later, he supported cleantech startups at Greentown Labs. At any given moment, he can be found calling a potential customer, going door-to-door, or speaking at a community outreach event.  

SEAN HUTTON, COMMUNITY OUTREACH COORDINATOR

Sean is a community outreach specialist who has worked with the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, the Worcester Roots Project, and the Connecticut Rivers Alliance. Sean loves talking to residents and local organizations about the benefits of community solar, and he also loves sharing animal facts with his co-workers.

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KELLY ROACHE, BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT CONSULTANT

Kelly has years of experience working as a diplomat at the US State Department and as an activist in the US fighting for human rights and social justice. Now at Solstice, she is handling our outreach efforts in New York as we expand to our second state.

MADELINE IFFERT, COMMUNITY OUTREACH ASSOCIATE

Madeline is an industrial engineer by training, but she is working with Solstice this year to spread awareness about community solar and further our mission of taking clean energy mainstream. Besides solar, her passions are Spanish and ballroom dancing.

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EMILY CLAPS, COMMUNITY OUTREACH ASSOCIATE

After studying computer science and theology in college, Emily joined Solstice to share her enthusiasm for the environment with Massachusetts residents. Motivated by her interest in technology and her faith, she believes universal access to clean energy in America can and should become a reality.

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DEEKSHA JUNEJA, SOFTWARE ENGINEER

Deeksha is Solstice’s developer, having studied computer engineering in college. She wants to use her skills to help solve social and environmental issues, and she believes her work on Solstice’s software platform is an excellent way to tackle both in one fell swoop.

JONAH BADER, COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT FELLOW

Jonah is a history buff who enjoys writing and storytelling. He gained previous environmental work experience at the Yale Sustainability Office and Ceres, as well as experience in poverty alleviation as a volunteer tax preparer. In his dual marketing and fundraising roles, he spends his time crafting Solstice’s external communications.

DANNY TOBIN, COMMUNITY OUTREACH FELLOW

Danny studied international affairs and environmental policy in college. Prior to joining Solstice, he conducted research for the Council for Watershed Health in Los Angeles. He brings valuable expertise in data analysis to Solstice’s outreach team, where he works part-time.

The Five Solstice Values

By Madeline Iffert and Jonah Bader

Solstice is more than just a renewable energy company. We are a mission-driven organization, guided in our daily work by the following five values.

Equity | Expand the benefits of the green economy to all.

Solar is booming, and the technology is cheaper than ever. In fact, more American households installed solar in the past three years than in the previous fifty years combined. Yet 80% of Americans are effectively locked out of the solar market. Furthermore, low- to moderate-income Americans are most in need of solar savings and suffer the greatest impacts of fossil fuel pollution. We believe it is crucial to bring solar to these consumers because for us, energy equity is not just an environmental issue but also a human right. All people deserve access to clean energy regardless of their income or roof.

Integrity | Do what’s right, not what’s easy.

At Solstice, we believe in acting with integrity, and that means not cutting corners. It means playing the role of the honest broker, finding partners who genuinely share our mission, and offering the best product possible to our customers. It means being transparent with our customers about what they are signing up for so there are no surprises. It means not taking advantage of the vulnerable. It means complying with the law. It means doing the right thing and treating people with respect.

Hard Work | Opportunity favors sweat and execution.

Solstice knows that no matter how good an idea is, success must be earned. That is why the team works day in and day out to further our mission of bringing affordable, renewable energy to every American. We put in a staggering number of hours of research, strategy, phone calls, and outreach. We are constantly coding, Tweeting, and talking to someone new about our product. Weekends and evenings are never off-limits when there is an important opportunity, and no opportunity is too small. There is simply no substitute for hard work.

Curiosity | Stay humble and hungry to learn.

Although the Solstice team brings deep experience to our efforts to expand community solar,  we recognize that there is much we do not know. We are never afraid to seek out mentors and ask for advice when we encounter an issue beyond our expertise. We diligently monitor the latest developments in energy policy and compare notes with major players in the field. We are always thinking of new ways to improve our offering so that anyone who wants to switch to solar is able to do so. We learn from each other, our partners, and most of all, we learn from our customers.

Gratitude | Acknowledge others first for successes.

Solstice would not be what it is today without the help of countless people and organizations who have lent us their time, expertise, networks, and financial support. We receive so much generous assistance, and we always strive to acknowledge those who help us. In fact, we have built appreciation into our weekly routine by having each member of the team send a handwritten letter of gratitude at the beginning of each week to a member of the community. We write to people who helped us in all sorts of ways, big or small, to make sure that no one feels we take their generosity for granted.