On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Last week, Metro released a request for proposals for a company to put solar panels on parking lots and garage roofs at four stations. And the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, along with Catholic Energies and IGS Solar, announced a plan to create D.C.’s largest solar array and pollinator field in Northeast. Meanwhile, environmentalists continue to push back on Georgetown University’s plan to build a large solar farm in Charles County, Maryland, which would require clear cutting 210 acres of forested land.
These projects come on the heels of clean energy laws that passed this year in D.C. and Maryland. Maryland’s law establishes a statewide goal of reaching 50% renewable energy by 2030, with a provision to reach 14.5% solar energy by 2028. The District plans to meet a 100% renewable energy goal by 2032.
What do these state laws mean for solar accessibility and affordability in the region? We’ll talk with three experts about solar programs for people from low- and middle-income backgrounds. And we’ll discuss the pros and cons of creating large-scale solar projects.
A spokesperson from Georgetown University provided us with this comment:
“Georgetown is deeply committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2020 through a multi-pronged approach to sustainability. One part of this approach is to buy solar power, which led the University to enter into an agreement with MD Solar 1, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Origis Energy USA, to purchase energy from Origis’ Shugart Solar Project located in Charles County.
“In our role as the project customer, Georgetown has spent the past several months engaged in a thorough internal review of the project based on the projects substantial publicly documented information and the permit approvals it has achieved to date. Our understanding is that Maryland has one of the most extensive, public and participatory permit systems in the county. We have engaged an independent third party expert to advise us and we are also engaging with faculty members with expertise in environmental issues and with our broader community.”
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on the WAMU 88.5, welcome. From solar panels on residential roofs to large solar farms and fields, families and organizations are tapping into the power of the sun for renewable energy. But that energy can come at a financial cost, and sometimes an environmental one. Joining me to talk about the latest solar news and solar programs in the region is Rick Peters. He is the President of Solar Energy Services. He's also President of the Board of Directors of the local trade organization MDV-SEIA, which stands for Maryland, D.C. and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association. Rick Peters, thank you for joining us.
RICK PETERSThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Nicole Steele. She is the Executive Director of GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic. Nicole Steele, thank you for joining us.
NICOLE STEELEThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd Matty Guerin is the Marketing Executive at Neighborhood Sun. Matty, thank you for joining us.
MATTY GUERINMy pleasure.
NNAMDIRick Peters, the last few weeks have been big for solar news in this region. Let's start with Metro, which announced it hopes to put solar panels on garages and parking lots near four of its stations. Is this WMATA's first venture into solar and how will it work?
PETERSI think it's WMATA's first large venture into solar, and the way it will work is that WMATA will select a solar developer that will build these projects and lease the property in order to build the projects and then they will -- excuse me, they would create revenue from the solar renewable energy credits and they will distribute the energy most likely through community solar programs to folks throughout the community.
NNAMDIIs that a typical model for Metro to lease space to another company and for that company to make money from the solar power produced?
PETERSIt is a common model. In the case of WMATA, they won't be actually signing a power purchase agreement according to their RFP. So they won't be consuming the energy. The energy will be redistributed to other consumers.
NNAMDIDo we know why Metro is taking this step and why now?
PETERSWell, they're doing it I think to -- for a lot of reasons, but one is to support the region's efforts in renewable energy to help create more green jobs, and to leverage the real estate that they have to generate revenue.
NNAMDINicole, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington announced earlier this month that its planning to create the largest solar field array in D.C. Can you tell us exactly what they're creating and what it will mean for the organizations involved?
STEELEAbsolutely. So they're looking to do a ground mount solar installation near or on one of their properties. I believe they will be an off taker of that project, which means they will actually receive the energy from that project. I do know that they're also doing some innovative things on this site that include pollinator --
NNAMDIWhat's a pollinator meadow? Is that what they're doing? What's a pollinator meadow?
STEELEYeah. Exactly. So it's brining in native plants that really attracts butterflies and bees. And I do know that they're also thinking about putting some beehives on sight, which could be a lot of fun. It's a good -- they're good sort of, you know, they're great uses for the same sight for sure.
NNAMDIWhy include that in a solar energy project, I guess, because you can.
STEELEBecause you can. Why not? It's a ground mount solar array. There's plenty of ground underneath and if you can make the ground healthier. You can also use pollinators and other plants to really clean soil over time. We're actually doing a similar project to Catholic Charities in east of the river in D.C. where we're going to put solar on a brown field. And so during the time of the solar installation sitting on that brown field we're going to put plants in to really sort of bring back the health of that site so that it could be used in different ways after the lifetime of the solar panels.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding, Rick Peters, that your company Solar Energy Services is part of the Catholic Charities project as the design and construction partner.
PETERSThat's right, Kojo, we're involved in that regard. And we also participated a little bit in the development and we're very much encouraging the idea of utilizing the pollinator meadow. It's also going to provide additional storm water management because of the keep roots of the pollinator meadow. It's also going to lower the temperature at the site, which also will help the solar to perform better and reduce the heat island effect.
NNAMDIIt's interesting that a group of local Catholic organizations is leading this charge to build a solar farm. How common is it for faith groups to invest in clean energy? Do you know, Matty Guerin?
GUERINIt's getting more common, and if fact we were talking earlier before the show that one of the problems that we've had just in our marketing is establishing a level of trust and, you know, especially for a new industry it's really hard to have -- we don't have generations of trust. And unfortunately there have been some bad actors in the past where sometimes communities have been taken advantage of. So establishing a level of trust is something that is done better if it's done through faith organizations.
NNAMDIYour company has four solar farms as part of its community solar model. And, Nicole, GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic is working on creating its own solar farm. First, Matty, can you tell us what a solar farm is and how large one might be.
GUERINThey vary a great deal in size. Our largest is the Panorama Landfill Community Solar project, which as of a couple of weeks ago became fully subscribed with over 1100 households getting their electricity mostly covered through this solar farm. That one is 25 acres. There are some that are, you know, just a few acres in size. So they do vary a great deal in size. The one in Panorama is one of the largest in the areas.
STEELEYeah. And I would just add that the solar farm that we're putting in east of the river is going to serve about 750 to approximately 800 families all surrounding that neighborhood. So it's incredibly important to make sure that during the development process of solar that we're really building trust. As Matty was talking about and that, you know, we're a good actor in the community and that this is going to be a benefit for the community long term. And so that's what I was going at with sort of rebuilding the health of that particular parcel, which is about 15 acres. It's about two and a half megawatts of solar. So it's a lot of solar.
STEELEBut the other really cool thing that we do for sort of those larger arrays and all of the installations actually for GRID Alternatives is we bring the community out to participate in the install itself. And so that's going to be an incredibly important part to -- so solar is not so esoteric. If it's not on your roof, you don't know where it is. You don't know what it does, how it works. And so we're going to bring the community out and be able to have the opportunity for them to sort of touch and feel and be a part of actually installing the glass as part of the solar facility. And then continue to do education engagement following the development of the site.
NNAMDIMatty, have you received pushback from the community about your solar farm?
GUERINNo. Our solar farms have been put into areas that -- for example, the landfill could not be used for agriculture. It could not be used for development. It really couldn't be used for much of anything. It's a former landfill and it does have pollinator friendly plants on it.
NNAMDIRick Peters -- go ahead.
GUERINOur second one that is also in the Pepco Maryland region is on top of a self-storage facility.
NNAMDIRick Peters because the Catholic Charities solar farm is going to be located on what is now considered a brown field, what's a brown field?
PETERSWell, I don't know that property would be considered a brown field.
PETERSIt is --
NNAMDIIt's privately owned.
PETERSIt's privately owned land, yeah. And brown field is typically like a former landfill or a property where you couldn't build residences or other buildings. But in this case the Catholic Charities's property is an open (unintelligible) with, you know, some heritage trees that will remain.
NNAMDIThe project you're working on, Nicole, is on what's considered a brown field.
STEELECorrect. Correct, which means the land is contaminated, but you can use different types of plants to remove the contamination over the years.
NNAMDIOver the course of 20 or 30 years.
NNAMDIAnd during that time they can be a solar farm there. Rick, last week the highest court in Maryland affirmed that the state has authority over local county governments, when it comes to deciding where solar and wind projects can go. What's the back story behind that decision?
PETERSWell, the backstory is primarily having to do with resistance to large solar projects often on formerly agricultural land. There are a lot of folks that don't like the impact on the view shed primarily, but there are other reasons people are opposed. There is something called a public convenience necessity that basically the Public Service Commission decides where they can put power plants. And so basically that court ruling was to uphold the PSC's ability to use the CPCN process to be able to select sites -- or to approve sites that are selected for solar projects.
NNAMDISo this means the Maryland Public Service Commission is the ultimate decision maker here, but at the same time a lot of projects have been stalled or halted because of battles over where those projects land. So this ruling might move projects forward. But what about local say so over what happens in a county or other jurisdiction?
PETERSYes. And I think it's really important and incumbent upon developers to engage the local communities early. You know, as Matty said there have been, you know, bad actors in all parts of the segment, but for the most part developers are really learning how important it is to engage the community early and get feedback. In the case of our Catholic Charities project we modify the design based on feedback from the community.
STEELEYeah. The one thing I would just --
NNAMDII was about to say, Nicole, how much feedback should organizations solicit when they're building these large solar farms?
STEELEAbsolutely. So as a former land use planner myself I'm very familiar with feedback from the community and how that can go well and how it cannot go well. And so I'm harkening back on my days of real estate development and it's very very similar. And so like Rick was saying solar developers are starting to mature and really understand what that's stakeholder process requires and it really does require building that community support, and so getting out into the community, knocking on doors, tabling at events, being part of the ANC process and then now even part of the, you know, the sort of special exception processes where necessary.
STEELEAnd so we really want to make sure that solar is not the enemy. And how can the solar industry help the community learn that we are here to support a transition to the new clean energy economy and that we need to be working together to make sure that that's possible. And everybody around us is able to see the benefits of solar, but also not negatively impacted.
NNAMDIMatty, same question to you. How much community feedback do you solicit?
GUERINI think you are continually asking for feedback positive and negative. Thankfully I hear an awful lot of positive and I don't hear a lot of negative. I don't think anybody wants to be where they're not welcome, and so having that feedback is important, you know, because you can't market a product that people don't want. And if you're unwelcome then you have a solar farm that nobody wants to participate in.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Josh Kurtz from the Nature Conservancy of Maryland and D.C. Community solar projects are a critical part of the future of renewable energy in Maryland and the District. Identifying large tracks of land to build new solar infrastructure will definitely be necessary. The right places will likely be things like abandoned mine lands, public rights of way like those under power lines, unproductive farmlands or land ruined by saltwater intrusion, the tops of rooftops, parking lots, industrial facilities and retired landfills. All of those sound good to you, Rick Peters?
PETERSThey do. I think we definitely want to look for previously disturbed lands and lands that couldn't be utilized productively otherwise as the first place to build large solar farms.
NNAMDIHere now is Father John Enzler from Catholic Charities of Washington D.C. You're on the air, Father John Enzler. Go ahead, please.
FATHER JOHN ENZLERWell, I just wanted to thank you for a chance to talk about something we believe in strongly at Catholic Charities mostly because of Pope Francis's "Laudato Si," which is was this encyclical about taking care of the environment. And this is our chance I think to reach out to the good of the planet and make sure that those who are living here now, but along in the future, will be protected by the way we handled the environment our air, our sea, our land.
NNAMDIAnd as you said that comes from the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.
ENZLERCorrect. In 2015, he wrote an encyclical on this issue. It's been one of our -- teaches social justice for many many years, one of the seven principles of justice, but he wrote an encyclical about it, a letter about it, in which he said we should really look at this issue. So we're thrilled to be respondent to his hopes and dreams. We think we're on the right track here.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back we're talking about solar farms and other solar initiatives in this region with Nicole Steele, Executive Director of GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic. Matty Guerin is the Marketing Executive at Neighborhood Sun. And Rick Peters is President of the Board of Directors for the local trade organization MDV-SEIA, which stands for Maryland, D.C. and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association. He's also the President of Solar Energy Services.
NNAMDIGeorgetown University is working with a company to create a solar array in Charles County Maryland, and some environmentalists have been pushing back. Joining us by phone now to talk about this project is Eliza Cava, the Director of Conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society. Eliza Cava, thank you for joining us.
ELIZA CAVAHello, Kojo. Thank you so much for having me back.
NNAMDIWhat is your concern about this proposed solar project in Charles County Maryland?
CAVAWell, so Georgetown University in partnership with their developer Origis is planning to cut down 240 acres of intact forest on the Nanjemoy Peninsula. This area has been called the lungs of D.C. for how dense and intact the forest is there and what a contribution it makes to cleaning the air that we breathe here in the D.C. area. The area is also home to a wide variety of rare and in some cases threatened or endangered species that really rely on interior forest habitat for their needs. And what we've heard about in the first part of the program, 25 acres on the Panorama landfill, tops of parking garages, brown fields. These are exactly where solar should go first and before we even start to think about cutting down our intact forests.
CAVAIt's just -- you know, when you talk about getting community feedback, it's so different to talk about 240 acre intact forest parcel by comparison to finding the right places for solar within an urban and suburban region. And I want to really applaud the other panelists for their work in finding those kinds of spaces in our urban and suburban region.
NNAMDISo in Charles County it would require cutting down a forest. Is there any comprise here? Another location perhaps?
CAVAWell, just exactly what Josh Kurtz for the Nature Conservancy wrote in to say salt damaged fields, brown fields, there's a lot of other spaces in the area. Including some large spaces that are available that could work. You talk about some of these former agricultural fields, I recognize it could be controversial, but many of those are in the process of being sold for suburban development anyway. So as long as we're talking about developing an agricultural field, an old agricultural field, it could be houses or it could be solar panels. That would be one great place to consider a large solar development.
NNAMDIWell, we invited Georgetown to join the conversation. A Georgetown spokesperson provided us with this statement which we've edited for concerns about time. Georgetown is committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2020. One part of this approach is to buy solar power, which led the university to enter into an agreement with Origis Energy to purchase energy from their Shugart Solar Project in Charles County. Georgetown has engaged in a thorough internal review of the project. We've engaged a third party expert to advise us. We are also engaging with faculty members with expertise in environmental issues and with our broader community.
NNAMDIThat's part of the statement. You can find the full statement at our website, kojoshow.org. Eliza Cava, as you just heard me read Georgetown emphasizes that it's a client of Origis under this agreement. In your perspective do you think this makes Georgetown any less blameworthy?
CAVAI think that all forms of energy can have some tradeoffs. And you need to be aware of all of them. Universities and governments have come under fire for pipelines and fossil fuel extraction. I would never say that solar falls in the same category as those things, but they think about their reputational risk in a lot of different categories. And this may very well be one of them. I think, yes, when you're building a large project of the things to consider is the buck stops with you if you're the purchaser. What is ultimate -- are you setting up? Especially in this case where Georgetown is the sole purchaser of that power, then it's not like the Metro parking lots where it will be sold to many different customers.
CAVAIn this case Georgetown is the sole customer for this power. So they do I think bare a significant amount of responsibility. And furthermore, they've talked about collaboration and consulting with the faculty. But neither they nor Origis has focused on outside community consultation, and in particular with the Piscataway tribes. This area is part of the ancestral homeland of many of the indigenous communities of Maryland, and they have not been consulted in this process. So there's a couple of different steps that Georgetown has skipped in this process that they and their contractor needed to take into account.
NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here is Lewis in northeast D.C. Lewis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEWISThank you, Kojo. I agree with the Nature Conservancy. Georgetown University has 75 buildings and lawns that they're mowing like crazy I'm sure with gas powdered equipment. But I live near the Catholic Charities project and that five acre is occupied. There's a hospice run by nuns right in the middle of it with 38 terminally ill patients, women, men and children according to Missionaries of Charities say. And we're very concerned about it in the neighborhood here, because as much as they're saying that they're going to start a pollinator meadow. That's fine. But the other day the entire grassy five acres overnight turned brown. And we're pretty sure that they've sprayed that lot with a possibly carcinogenic defoliant. So isn't this kind of like a corporate scam to get the (word?) upfront, the credits and plow over the community and just start spraying defoliant for a pollinator garden.
NNAMDISo let me be clear here before I ask Rick Peters what he knows about this. What you're saying is that Catholic Charities of Washington D.C. is part of corporate scam?
NNAMDIOkay. Well, Rick Peters, that's the accusation here.
PETERSWell, I can tell you that as part of a pollinator project development one of the first things that you need to do is to kill the turf grass, because turf grass will take over the pollinator meadow and render it useless. So that process is the best practice from the pollinator experts that have been advising us. And it is proved by DOEE. And it was done with very great care and under the periodic supervision of DOEE inspectors.
NNAMDIOkay. And, Lewis, thank you very much for your call? Eliza Cava, in another statement that Georgetown gave to WAMU's Jacob Fenston in February Georgetown said the project, quoting here, "Would reduce greenhouse emissions equivalent to planting more than 429,000 trees, which is the amount of carbon sequestered by approximately 30,000 acres of forest." How do you respond to that idea that the short term costs may outweigh the long term benefits or the long term benefits may outweigh the short term costs?
CAVAThanks, Kojo. And, you know, that's a very important question to Audubon Naturalist Society. We are absolutely committed to fighting climate change and also to protecting nature. And the way we see it, the way I see it is we have two kinds of crisis here, and they interact with each other. We have both a biodiversity crisis and a climate crisis. And when you're talking about intact forest habitat that's home to many different kinds of species there's additional values there beyond the carbon stored in those trees. What we'd like to see is both, a lot of both. A lot of trees, thousands and thousands and thousands of acres of trees and a lot of solar panels, and so where those solar panels go is very important.
CAVAI'll tell you off the top of head. I drive along the interstate. I see an awful lot of big box top stores, warehouse processing centers, really flat roofs, maybe a lot of solar panels. Many many many acres of solar panels could go on those types of buildings and then we don't have to have this conversation about just the carbon value in trees. And we can remember that they're also home to Eastern Whip-poor-wills and Wood Thrushes and Worm Eating Warblers, Dwarf Wedgemussel and that they help clean our water that goes into the Chesapeake Bay.
NNAMDIHow responsive has Georgetown been to community feedback?
CAVAEarlier, you mentioned, in Georgetown's statement, that they were working with a third-party environmental consultant and had repaired a report. They had earlier told community members that we would be able to see that report, and it hasn't yet been released. So, that's the most I can say, at this time.
NNAMDIAs far as you know, is Georgetown still moving ahead as planned with the project?
CAVAAs far as I know, yes. The area where we have to weigh in and where we're focusing is on the Maryland Department of Environment's permitting process. We just submitted a comment letter today, along with dozens of allies, to the Maryland Department of Environment, urging them to deny the permit that would be required for the development to proceed, because of the presence of two streams -- which are tier-two streams, the highest kind of designation in the state -- and the wetlands associated with them. And we sent that letter in today, and I think you might be able to find the link on your website, but you can find it on ours: anshome.org.
CAVAAnd, right now, the comment period is indefinitely delayed, because MDE is waiting on Origis to submit a technical document that would help them assess whether they should permit further degradation of those two tier-two streams. I know that as a fair amount of jargon, but, basically, (laugh) the water quality is so high there, that it's at great risk of being damaged. And MDE has asked for additional documentation. Until that documentation is provided, the project is on hold. So, I don't know when Origis will submit that documentation. That would restart the process. At this moment, it's on hold.
NNAMDIBefore I let you go, solar panels and solar farms are just one option when it comes to renewable energy. Can you briefly tells us what else should organizations or even people in their homes be considering?
CAVAOh, that's a great question. And, first of all, we've got what Nicole and Matty and Rick do, which is solar panels on rooftops, for example. I have one on top of my row house in the District. The other thing is simply using less electricity. The heatwave that, thank goodness, is going to break this afternoon, we've had a number of rolling brownouts and power outages around the region, transformers popping, that sort of thing.
CAVAIf everybody is setting their electricity to 73 -- their air conditioner to 73 degrees, that's using a lot of electricity. It puts a lot of strain on the grid, and that means that the power company needs to have more power available to serve it, or it blinks out, and some people are left in 100 degrees. So, if everybody just sets their temperature a little higher, 78 degrees -- or higher, if you can tolerate it -- right there, you might be setting aside the whole need to build another power plant for the next couple summers. And we need to be making those decisions more and more, as we will be getting more and more heat waves.
NNAMDIEliza Cava is the director of conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society. Thank you so much for joining us.
CAVAThank you so much, and thank you to all the panelists today.
NNAMDIHere is a concern. Debbie in Washington, D.C. Debbie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEBBIEI live in Northeast Washington, and I've been working with the neighbors in this environment. I went and attended at Sharon Baptist Church, the first presentation that Catholic Charities made to the community. It was clear to understand, and it was properly discussed that there was no credits, there was no benefit at all for the neighbors to receive anything from this solar array being built in our environment, on this acreage. It's also impacting the cost and the value of the properties around this property. All these homes are worth much more than the $200,000 they're going to make a year in profit from having the solar array there.
DEBBIEWe're all for solar. We're all for clean energy, but when you bring something into the neighborhood that impacts the people -- and them saying they're good actors -- yes, they are good actors, but they're also bad neighbors. Because you cannot come into a neighborhood and spray a product like Roundup and not inform the neighbors in advance that this is occurring, so they can bring their pets in, cut off their air conditioning and not be around it at the time that it's being sprayed. That did not occur.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. I'll ask Rick Peters if he has anything to say about that, but, on the other hand, Rob Tweets: the D.C. project is different than most. Thousands of flowering and pollinator-friendly plants will grow under and around the panels. Rick Peters.
PETERSWell, I think it is important, like I said earlier, to engage the community early, and we just heard that that took place. We also took feedback from the community. There were changes made to the design that the panel height was reduced. There's going to be evergreen and deciduous trees planted around the perimeter. The pollinator meadow is going to improve the environment, reduce the temperature and benefit the community, as well as the agricultural community.
PETERSWe also took the community's feedback. There was concern about health effects from the electricity. And the developers commissioned a study to address that, and determined that there were no health impacts from having a solar farm there. And we had also relocated some of the equipment at the request of community members that were concerned that there might be noise from the operating of the inverters. So, there are many examples of where we took the community's feedback, and hopefully that's been well received. I believe it has been by most, and I absolutely understand that this kind of change is difficult for anyone for this to be happening in their community.
PETERSSo, we respect that, and we're going to really work hard to maintain transparency. We're providing updates to the community regularly, written updates that can be distributed through the ANC.
NNAMDIWell, Faith for Climate Solutions Tweeted at us: we work with Ipsun Solar to develop resources for congregations that want to go solar in Virginia. Faith for Climate Solutions helps people of faith develop local solutions to the climate crisis, which we were discussing earlier, about faith congregations being involved in this issue. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about programs aimed at low and middle-income residences to take advantage of solar power. So, stay with us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about solar initiatives in this region with Matt Guerin. He is the marketing executive at Neighborhood Sun. Nicole Steele is the executive director of GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic. And Rick Peters is president of the board of directors for the local trade organization MDV-SEIA, which stands for Maryland, D.C. and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association. He's also the president of Solar Energy Services. Nicole, let's say I own a house or an apartment in Maryland, D.C. or Virginia, and I'm interested in getting started in solar power. What are my options?
STEELEYeah, look, we've talked a lot about where solar could go or should go, but we should talk a lot about, you know, who should also see the benefits of solar. And so lower to moderate -income communities really pay a disproportionate portion of their income towards their utility bills. And so, if they're able to see the benefits of solar by reducing their utility bills through the installation of solar, that's certainly something that they should be able to enter into.
STEELEAnd so one of the things that the District has done is create a solar-for-all program as part of the new RPS standard, which is the Renewable Portfolio Standard that requires Pepco to generate a certain percentage of their generation portfolio to be renewable energy. And the goal of that program is to bring solar to 100,000 low to moderate-income households by 2032, to specifically see a 50 percent bill reduction.
NNAMDII was about to ask, how much are we talking? What's the average cost to install solar in a single family home, and what will the bill reduction look like?
STEELEYeah. So, as part of this program, specifically, it will be no cost to the homeowner. And there's a model called a third-party-ownership model where another company comes in and takes advantage of the tax equity, which is available at the national level, which low to moderate-income households typically don't have a tax appetite. And so they would not be able to leverage that subsidy themselves. And so it's really imperative to make sure that a third party owner is part of that. The other thing that they're leveraging are the solar renewable energy credits. And here in the District, they're very valuable. They're some of the most valuable credits in the country right now.
STEELEOn top of that, the D.C.'s Sustainable Energy Utility and the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment are providing rebates to cover the cost of energy themselves, so that they can see that 50 percent bill reduction at no cost. And so we're one of the developers of that program. We also run a solar training program, as part of that. And, really, you know, being able to make sure that we see a 500, 600, $1,200 bill reduction to a household is life-changing. We have many homeowners. We've done about 250 installations as part of this program already, and we're changing lives.
STEELESo, one example would be that there's a woman from Cameroon, originally, and the way I found out about this story is an email came into my inbox, and there was a cookbook attached to it. And all of the recipes in the cookbook were named after my staff. And so she's planning on selling that cookbook as part of her business practices, and then also opening up a community center through her house to really help other individuals to learn about...
NNAMDI(overlapping) And the reason she's been able to do that, the reason she has your staff members' names in the book is because she experienced a reduction in her electricity bill.
STEELEYeah. She's going to see about a $1,200 bill reduction annually, at minimum, through this program.
NNAMDIAnd she's using that to start her own business. Sister Eden Media Tweets: I live in Tacoma Park. And because we have too much tree cover to put solar panels on our roof, we use community solar through Neighborhood Sun. It's such a no-brainer. Matt Guerin, what is Neighborhood Sun? I know this is what's called a B Corp, which means that in addition to being a corporation, it also has a sense of mission.
GUERINYes. Most corporations are traditionally measured at their success by their bottom line being dollars. Benefit corporations actually value the societal impact that they have for their communities, as much as the dollars that drive most businesses. It's difficult to receive that certification, and it's difficult to maintain it. So, we're really very proud of it. And just to echo what was being said by the Tacoma Park resident, we really don't want to see any trees cut down. And I also live in Montgomery County, in a townhome, and my roof is not ideal for solar panels. I did look into it several years ago, and, you know, even if they covered my whole roof with solar panels, it would probably only cover about 20 to 30 percent of my electricity needs.
GUERINSo, for me to be able to participate in a community solar program was great. And then to be able to see savings as a result of that over, you know, what I would be paying for the traditional mix of coal, nuclear, oil and natural gas, it's just a no-brainer.
NNAMDIWell, there are a lot of people who want to join this conversation by phone, so let me get to them. I'll start with Pat in Washington, D.C. Pat, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATOkay. Thank you. I live in Clinton, Maryland, and I've recently put a new roof on my house about three years ago. I'm concerned about the solar panels, because nine months ago, my neighbor -- who's six doors down from me -- had his house catch on fire. And, fortunately, he's in a brick house, and not one with siding, but the only thing standing was brick. It's been completely rebuilt from the inside. And my concern -- he said to me that it was traced to -- it was an electrical power, a fire traced to the solar panels. And my question is, what kind of inspections go on after a company put the panels in? Is there one or two levels, another level above that that can come in and see if everything was installed properly? Because it's scary...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Matt Guerin?
GUERINI have to be honest, I couldn't tell you what the standards are for rooftop solar. I would imagine that the Public Service Commission would be the first place that I would look.
STEELESo, I'll jump in there, too...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Jump in.
STEELE...and I think Rick can also speak to this a little bit. But with rooftop solar installations, we're required to go through a local permitting process. And then as part of that process, a building code inspector does need to come out and take a look at the system that's installed. And, typically, it's a building inspector, as well as an electrical inspector. And so either, you know, something happened to the system itself. I would emphasize that, you know, this problem is very, very rare. And, you know, we wouldn't necessarily see this be a common happenstance, but, yes, there is a two-level inspection process, and really shouldn't have happened in the first place.
NNAMDIMost renters would assume there are no options for them to go solar, but there might actually be ways for renters to share in solar power. How?
STEELEThrough community solar. Just like myself, actually.
NNAMDIOh, that's what you do.
NNAMDIGRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic is a bit different than Neighborhood Sun. What services do you provide?
STEELESo, we're actually a nonprofit. So, we're a turnkey solar installer. We do everything from originating the project to developing the project, permitting, engineering, design, the installation itself and operation and maintenance. So, we do everything as part of that process. We also do policy and program development. And we really want to help sort of like support the market to make sure that everyone has access to solar. So, we talked a little bit about low-to-moderate income communities. And it's so important to make sure that everyone is benefitting through this transition. And so we play a big role in sort of the policy development piece of this market.
NNAMDI(overlapping) There's also a job-training part of the organization. Tell us about that.
STEELEAbsolutely. So, GRID has been integrating job training into its model since day one. Every single installation that we do, we utilize job trainings. And it can take a number of different forms from, you know, a volunteer coming out for one day, to an Americorp volunteer that spends 13 months with us, and everything in between. We have cohorts that do in-classroom job-training development. But also, the really important piece is making sure that we're giving folks an opportunity to get out on the roof and really understand what it's like to actually do the install.
STEELEThe other thing that I would add is that we're targeting the communities that we serve. And so we want to make sure that we're giving everyone a chance to enter into this industry. We have a number of returning citizens. We have folks working on their GEDs. We have, you know, veterans as part of our programs. And we want to make sure that, you know, we're looking at the barriers of how people can enter the industry. And one is transportation and childcare, and really sort of figuring that out as part of the process, and really making sure that the clean energy industry -- specifically the solar industry -- is accessible, and that we're helping folks through all of the communities that we work in get into that.
NNAMDIIndeed Matt, both your and Nicole's organizations put an emphasis on making solar accessible to low and middle-income families. Why is that an important part of your mission?
GUERINWell, just as a part of our founding, the whole idea was that solar belongs to everybody, or should belong to everybody. And not everybody has a roof, or an ideal roof, or the resources to put panels on that roof if they have it. And so the idea of this pilot program that's running through Maryland to make community solar more affordable, not just to everybody, but to even people that are in lower and moderate income, you know, categories. And there is quite a few people.
GUERINAnd one of the things that I do, I also want to point out, is low-moderate income, moderate is, you know, working families. You know, it's not as tough a barrier to be qualified for, as a lot of people might think.
STEELEYeah, and the other thing I would just add to that is the important piece of having a low to moderate-income component to the Maryland program, as well -- so Matty speaks about the Maryland community solar program that has an Alemite bucket, and they're different neighborhoods. And so Matty and I were talking about how to reach out and how to build trust in communities that are in sort of the moderate to low-income ranges, and how do we make sure that we can coordinate as organizations and help each other, you know, sort of like build up the solar industry's reputation and make sure that we are not considered the bad actors, and that we are here to support. And we want to make sure that everyone has access. And so that's also another important piece to it.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Justin, who writes: I'm signing a contract with Solar Edge to put panels on my roof today. To a 30 percent federal rebate in the form of a tax credit and the brokerage of my solar power credits, I will end up making a profit on this installation. D.C. is primed for residential solar. The only thing stopping people may be the hefty down payment on the financing option, which, for me, will be $2,500. Rick Peters, how do the solar laws in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia compare to the rest of the country?
PETERSWell, it's an interesting microcosm, because D.C. has some of the best incentives in the country. Maryland's probably in the top 15, maybe approaching top ten. And Virginia is near the bottom. So, we have very different markets right here, all around us. In Washington, D.C. a typical residential system, for a cash buyer, will pay back in three to four years. In Maryland, it's more like six, seven, nine years, depending on the application.
PETERSBut the incentives in Maryland and D.C. are quite good. Virginia has come a long way on the utility scale side, but for distributed solar or rooftop solar, the economics are not yet approaching what they are in Maryland and D.C.
NNAMDIHere's Jane, in Bethesda, Maryland. Jane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANEYeah, my comment or question goes back to the tradeoff between the production of different types of energy. I've heard -- and I don't know the truth to it, that's why I'm presenting this -- is that the vast majority of solar panels that are used in the United States are actually produced, manufactured in China. And that the environmental laws in China are, you know, virtually nonexistent. So, the environmental waste from the manufacturing process outweighs the benefit of using solar energy versus, you know, a coal-fire plant, or whatever. I'd like to know the truth behind that.
NNAMDIRick Peters, do you know anything about that?
PETERSSure. I certainly would acknowledge that producing solar panels is not entirely pure. There's a waste in every manufacturing process. In terms of where the panels come from, the majority did used to come from China, although that's rapidly changing over the last four or five years. We're buying a lot more panels that are manufactured in the U.S., and we're using panels from Germany and other Southeast Asian countries and Mexico. So, there's solar panel manufacturing happening all over the world. There was a high concentration in China, but that is starting to decline.
NNAMDIWell, we had an earlier caller who talked about the hospice on the property that Catholic Charities is putting a solar farm on. Dan is the COO for Catholic Energies. He emailed us, saying: regarding the hospice on the property, the missionaries of charity run the Gift of Peace convent. They operate the hospice. The sisters fully support our project and submitted letters of support on its behalf. And I'm afraid we're almost out of time here, but if you had your druthers, Nicole, how would you like to see D.C., Maryland and Virginia improve when it comes to solar energy laws?
STEELEYeah, so, like Rick was saying, D.C.'s very friendly right now. So, the one recommendation I would have is integrating workforce and local workforce requirements into the Solar for All program, specifically. Virginia really needs to be -- they need access to a third party ownership program. Like I said earlier, we can't leverage the tax equities available at the national level right now. And, you know, third-party ownership is not legal in Virginia for most residential households. And so really making sure that that is -- their sort of like baseline laws are there to support solar development. And then, in Maryland, I think, keep trudging along. We'll keep pushing the RPS up, and we're positive -- or we're hopeful that we will continue to see additional solar development in Maryland.
NNAMDII’m afraid that's all the time we have. Nicole Steele is the executive director of GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIMatt Guerin is the marketing executive at Neighborhood Sun. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIRick Peters is president of the board of directors for the local trade organization MDV-SEIA, and he's president of Solar Energy Services. Thank you for joining us.
PETERSIt's been my pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow, swimming in our local rivers has been illegal for decades, and for a good reason when you see the data on pollution. But could we be close to a turning point where Washingtonians can simply hop into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers? We'll check in on the state of local waterways. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. I hope you'll join us then. Until that time, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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