Montgomery County, Md., built its first community solar project that will serve low- and moderate-income (LMI) households, according to a press release from Groundswell, which developed the project. The 273-kilowatt (kW) solar project, located at Paddington Square Apartments in Silver Spring, Md., is part of Maryland’s Community Solar Pilot Program that includes dedicated solar capacity for projects that serve LMI residents.
It was developed by Groundswell, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that develops equitable clean energy programs, financed by SunLight General Capital, a women-led clean energy investment firm, and it is being constructed by SunCatch Energy, a Black-owned Maryland solar engineering, procurement and construction company.
The project will avoid approximately 5,701 pounds of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually per household, or 518,800 pounds of GHGs total, according to the EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.
“There are a substantial number of initiatives to get to the county’s [goal of] 0% greenhouse gas emissions by 2035,” said Tom Deyo, CEO of Montgomery County Green Bank, Rockville, Md., a partner on the project and aims to increase the amount of green energy financing in the county. “[Paddington Square] is the kind of offering that can help the county get there. In particular, the county climate action plan has a major equity component, and this demonstrates how you can bring equitable renewable energy to those goals.”
Paddington Square’s solar project is expected to go live by early November 2021. The local electric utility, Pepco, Washington, D.C., is currently working on permissions and interconnections, and subscriptions should open in the next few weeks, according to Deyo.
LMI residents face financial barriers to solar projects, such as high consumer credit score requirements, long-term contracts and being required to wait 90 days before the utility applies a solar credit to their bill, which can limit solar access to the affluent.
“Low-income residents may not be able to pay upfront or have the money for a long contract,” said Michelle Moore, Groundswell CEO. “If your budget is very tight, waiting for three months to get your discount is not something you can do.”
The Paddington Square project is working to break down these barriers, according to Moore. Twenty-eight households can enroll in SharePower, Groundswell’s community solar platform, and receive a no-cost solar subscription to lower their electricity bills. Ten subscriptions will be located on the Paddington Square property, while the rest will be made available to the wider community, Deyo said.
The SharePower model puts income-qualified households first in line to receive solar savings.
“This is something distinct about our model; many community solar programs provide the same 10% or 15% discount to everyone, but our model is built around equity,” Moore said.
Groundswell developed its own SharePower platform because many of the existing models require a credit card and monthly charges.
“But that’s not the way all households and families work,” Moore said. “[Other platforms] made assumptions about the financial wherewithal of the customer base. It was built around a more affluent customer, and that wasn’t mission-aligned for us. So, we decided to build our own.”
This project will put approximately $500 a year in solar energy savings back in LMI residents’ pockets, “but it also enables neighbors to help neighbors,” Moore said. “These projects provide more than clean electricity, [they provide] deep utility savings to low- and moderate-income neighbors and also invest in the community.”
Groundswell focuses on neighborhoods with LMI residents because they “may have been negatively impacted by historic redlining that also leaves them out of the clean energy economy,” Moore said. “One of the impacts of redlining was to prevent investment. Stuff didn’t get built, which meant the utility infrastructure didn’t get upgraded either.”
When working in communities impacted by disinvestment, Moore warned that there is a chance upfront costs could be higher.
“It may be four, five or even 10 times the interconnection costs of projects in more affluent neighborhoods,” she said. “Be aware of that, understand these histories impact our businesses too. Leaders can all do justice, all help to repair and restore our communities through our work.”
By the end of the year, Groundswell will serve over 7,000 community solar customers through Paddington Square, the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment’s Solar for All program and others, Moore said. Montgomery County Green Bank is developing solar projects in the county at condominiums and faith-based institutions and seeing which can provide service to LMI residents, Deyo said.