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.
Yesenia Rivera If we want solar to move from a boutique niche industry into, we want solar to become part of the solution towards climate, then we need everybody to go solar. We need everyone to go solar and that means we’re going to have to help low to moderate income folks find the finances to go solar. John Farrell How can States make it easier for anyone to go solar? Yesenia Rivera directs the Washington DC chapter of Solar United Neighbors and just wrapped up their participation in the district’s new solar for all program helping nearly 75 low income families go solar. We discussed how the Solar for All program makes solar work for everyone and how it meshes with the Solar United Neighbors model of bringing people together to go solar and defend solar rights. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy. I want to give a little bit of a caveat here. Disclosure, I am on the board of Solar United Neighbors, the national organization. But I’m super excited to have a conversation on Local Energy Rules today with Yesenia Rivera from Solar United Neighbors based in Washington DC. So Yesenia, thanks so much for joining me today. Yesenia Rivera Thanks John. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it. John Farrell Yeah. Well I want to start by talking about your specific work in Washington DC with the DC SUN chapter and hoping to give people a little bit of background. How is it that you help people go solar and how is it different from how people might go about going solar, putting solar on their rooftop if they were working on their own? Yesenia Rivera So 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. John Farrell And I think what’s great about it is that this model can really work anywhere that the basic concept of bulk purchasing is really not that much different, in some ways, from like Costco in the sense of you’re buying in bulk, but you also have creating relationships among people, which I think is pretty cool that the folks who are getting together to buy solar together actually have a decision making role in the process. Could you explain a little bit about that? And I’m saying this as someone who’s experienced having gone through that process in Minnesota. Yesenia Rivera Yeah it’s, it’s a very unique process. We believe in energy democracy and giving the people the power to decide where their energy comes from, who’s providing that energy. And with that in mind, when we designed the bulk purchasing campaigns, part of the process is selecting the installer. So what we do once we have 20 to 30 people in the group, we issue requests for proposals from local installers and they’ll compete to work with the group. And when people sign up, we ask them if they want to be part of the selection committee. Being part of a selection committee means that you’re going to take a couple of hours one day and sit down and review the different proposals. We will break those down for the group so that you can compare apples to apples and we’ll serve more as a technical advisor at that point. The idea is that the group itself picks the installer they want to work with, so we’re not selecting the installers, the co-op participants or the bulk purchase participants are selecting the installers. John Farrell I remember seeing a spreadsheet for the solar cooperative here in Minneapolis where I participated, and I didn’t end up actually being part of the group that met to make the decision, but it was really helpful how the Solar United Neighbors group here in Minnesota had kind of broken things down into like, here’s the cost, here’s the kind of panels that will be used. Here’s like the warranty stuff and then especially some of the stuff around, you know, when I get solar on my house, what might be these additional costs that could come up, things that you might not expect. And some of that stuff gets pre-negotiated which is so helpful about, oh, well if you need this kind of permit from the city, it’s going to be this much money. So you negotiate that ahead of time. And I thought that was just terrific to have that kind of information going in as a homeowner and as a prospective solar buyer. Having someone kind of holding my hand through that process to know what are going to be the things that are going to come up. Yesenia Rivera Yeah. Our goal is to educate the participants as much as possible. It’s like we want them to have the best experience possible. If that means being upfront about everything costs, uh, the addition. So when we request these proposals from the installers, we make sure to break down all those details. If you have a flat roof, how much more is that going to cost you? if you’re need any squirrel guards? Is that an additional cost if you have to upgrade your electrical panels? All those things are, like you said, they’re not something that you necessarily think of when you’re thinking going solar, just thinking the panels, how much is that going to cost me? But there are other costs involved in the project and we want to make sure that people understand those upfront so they’re making an informed decision. John Farrell So you’re asking the right questions, which I think is great and I just have to ask you a question about that. What the heck is this squirrel guard? Yesenia Rivera So in certain parts of the country, well I’m talking from the DC side, especially when you’re dealing with flat roofs and you have trees around your property, you may have squirrels that love to come onto your roof and you don’t want them to get into your solar system and affect the wiring or the cables cause that is going to cost you. So installers put sort of like this little fence around your system so that the squirrels and the critters can’t get to it. John Farrell That is pretty cool. All right. Let’s go back to some serious questions about the work that you’re doing, not so much about squirrels. Could you tell a little bit about how Solar United Neighbors in the district has been involved in helping to serve more low income folks with solar? Why is that important? Yesenia Rivera Well, we were part of the first round of Solar for All grantees and this is the district’s mission is to help low income families go solar at no cost to them. The district realized that there was this push towards solar energy and a lot of district residents were transitioning towards solar energy, but low and moderate income folks were being left behind during this transition. And the district made a commitment to help low to moderate families go solar. And we were blessed to be part of the first round of, of grantees in the idea is to help a hundred thousand low income families go solar by 2032 and reduce the cost on their bill by 50%. John Farrell Wow. So not a small scale effort by any stretch of imagination? Yesenia Rivera No, no. Like I said, we were part of the first round. So we had one of the innovative rounds grant and we ended up helping 73 families go solar during that process. I think on average, we installed 4.3 kilowatt systems during the full referral process, but we combined the solar for all subsidies with our regular market co-ops. John Farrell So when you mentioned that it’s a grant program, so where is the money coming from for the district to do this program? And I assume that some of the benefit, you know a lot of times when you have solar on a rooftop, it might cover all of somebody’s electric bill. Are some of the benefits of a solar array on a low income roof for example, like going back into the program to help other families go solar? Do they get all of the benefit of the solar on their rooftop? How do you do that? Yesenia Rivera So first question on how is the district paying for this is one I get asked often. And like I said, when the district made the commitment to help low income families, they decided to use the alternative compliance payment as the sort of the funding source for the program. So with the RPS, the renewable portfolio standard, when it was increased to 50% the solar carve-out was also increased to 5% and the alternative compliance payment schedule was shifted to account for that and those payments are being set aside for low income solar programs in the green bank. But mostly it covers the Solar for All program. So that’s where the funding is coming from. John Farrell So just to get into the weeds there for a second, alternative compliance payments are what a utility basically pays in if they’re not able to buy enough solar themselves to meet the requirement, right? Yesenia Rivera Basically, yes. So, under DC law, like I said, there’s a solar carve out. It was 5% at that time. And if the utilities could not show that they were generating 5% of their energy from solar sources, they have to pay a to the district that fine. In 2018, I think it was $26 million. I’m not sure. The numbers haven’t been released for 2019 yet, but in 2018 it was $26 million that is earmarked for Solar for All. John Farrell And what happens? What if Pepco, or I guess Exelon now owns Pepco in the district, that utility, what if they go on a solar building spree and all of a sudden don’t have these fines or payments that would go into the solar for all program? Does that jeopardize the ability to get low income folks to go solar? Yesenia Rivera Yes, because then the district has to go back to the drawing board and decide how they’re going to fund this program. Right now I think the idea is first of all, the solar carve-out was increased in 2018 to, well technically the law was signed in 2019, so it was increased to 10% solar by 2032. So they double their solar carve out during the a hundred percent clean energy bill push. And we are nowhere near meeting those goals in the district right now. But the idea is that they’re taking aside the, the fines, the alternative compliance payments, and they’re using the bulk of it for Solar for All, but they’re using it as well to see the green bank. And eventually the green bank will take over low income solar financing. John Farrell Oh, okay, so there’s a plan here that extends beyond when those payments come in with the green bank to be able to continue to finance low-income solar. Yesenia Rivera That is the idea. Yes. John Farrell We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, I asked Yesenia about what incentives support solar development in the district, what policies Solar United Neighbors supports to expand solar rights, and how SUN will expand equitable access to solar across its 11 state chapters. John Farrell Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. 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The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts: Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power. Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program. John Farrell Are there other incentives that support solar development in the district? Anything else that targets low and moderate income folks in particular? Yesenia Rivera Actually the biggest incentive in the district, and this applies to anyone in the district going solar would come from the income generated by the solar renewable energy credits or the SRECs. DC has the highest value for the solar renewable energy credits. I think I checked this morning and it was at $445 a credit. So that makes the return on investment way shorter than anywhere else in the country. I think our return on investment is four to five years in the district. It’s one of the reasons why going solar in DC is such a valuable proposition. John Farrell And those, those values can fluctuate over time. But like you said, because the district has sort of a shortage of solar compared to its requirements of the utilities, they’re going to remain high for the near term? Yesenia Rivera For the foreseeable future, yes. I mean it’s a market. So as any market, those prices go up and they go down. A couple of years ago they were in the $200 range. After the district signed our RPS bill transitioning to a hundred percent clean energy, with a 10% solar carve out, those prices have been steadily increasing and it’s one of the reasons why when I am talking to consumers in the district, I always advocate if you have the means to pay for your system and own it and go solar yourself, it’s worth it in the end because of that income. And it’s also why when we design our Solar for All program, our low-income subsidy, we focus on ownership. We wanted people that were going solar, even if they were going solar through the district grant, we wanted them to own the system and be able to take advantage of that SREC value. John Farrell That makes a lot of sense. You know, one of the things that I really like about, Solar United Neighbors, it’s why I’m on the board and want to be part of that process, I’m excited about helping promote this structure and way of going solar, is that part of the goal is to help people organize to defend solar rights even as they’re putting solar on their own rooftop. And so that means getting into policy in a way that a lot of other solar installation processes don’t. And I’m kind of curious, what are the kinds of policy that DC SUN has worked on to ensure solar access for everyone? I think, I’m assuming that we’re already talking about some of these policies, but I think it would be useful to just kind of like articulate that out loud, the kind of policy that Solar United Neighbors works to support with its members? Yesenia Rivera Well, we’ve been in DC for 10, 12 years. We’ve had a hand in every one of the renewable portfolio standard bills that have come through the district and pushing towards increasing renewable energy in DC, especially this last clean energy bill. We advocated for that 10% solar carve out. But we also advocated for the transition to be one based on equity. We took part in, uh, the solar and HOA bill, which protects residents in HOA, homeowners associations, keeps the homeowners association from imposing too many burdens on them going solar. And more recently we were part of a fight to help homeowners in historic zones here in the district be able to go solar without having to deal with too much bureaucracy. I don’t know if you, you’ve heard, but last year there were several projects that were denied because of families residing inside a historic zoning, which is a big issue here in DC because we have so many historic zones throughout the district and people were feeling that the historic zoning board was not working with homeowners in order to issue these solar permits or a lot of families that wanted to go solar. But if they have a front facing roof, that project is automatically denied. But it wasn’t just front facing. If anyone could see the panels from an alley, I think one permit got denied because they could see it from across the bridge down the street. So it was getting really onerous for homeowners inside historic districts to, to obtain solar permits. 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 and the board would not approve, uh, those solar permits. So we were part of the groups that rallied to get the historic preservation board to reconsider their guidelines in terms of solar in historic districts. And I can say that they did change their guidelines. They’re supposed to make it a little bit easier. It’s more of a matter of, right, if the panels are not visible from the front of, from the streets who they can work with the board, try to minimize the impact, but we should see more solar in historic districts and historic zones in DC. John Farrell One of the things I’d like to ask you more about is around this notion of access for everyone. So we, I think intuitively a lot of people think, yes, absolutely I want to support everybody being able to go solar that can do it. But obviously there’s going to be differences in people’s ability to finance solar, which is, you know, still not inexpensive, even as the cost has come down 80% or more and in a decade. Why is it so important that we should make sure that folks who don’t have a lot of savings or who don’t have a lot of cash on hand should be able to go solar? Yesenia Rivera It is a matter of equity. Lower to moderate income folks will end up spending more of salaries and their income towards their utility bill than a moderate to higher income earners. And the lower your income, that higher that energy burden. And it’s also sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with low income tenants who have no control over energy efficiency of their apartment, that energy burden can be extremely high. So we want to be able to help these families go solar and lower that energy burden because it helps in other aspects. But if we want solar to move from a boutique niche industry into, we want solar to become part of the solution towards climate, then we need everybody to go solar. We need everyone to go solar. And that means we’re going to have to help low to moderate income folks find the finances to go solar. Because otherwise solar is going to be relegated to sort of a niche, boutique where only the people that can afford it will go solar and it doesn’t become part of the solution. John Farrell And one of the things I think is really interesting about the design of DC Solar for All program too, that I think is interesting is some people might look at this as an issue of, well, we don’t want to give people special subsidies, but in a way what’s really interesting here is you’re taking a penalty that’s applied to the utility for not meeting the goal and you’re saying, let’s just take that money. But specifically dedicated to folks who we know will have trouble affording solar, but everybody wins because more solar is getting built, which is the goal of the policy and it just happens to be helping people who have the hardest time paying their energy bills. Yesenia Rivera Exactly. I mean you’re, you’re increasing the amount of clean energy that’s being put into the environment. You’re taking that penalty that’s already big charges. It’s already been passed down to the rate payers and you’re putting it back into the pockets of people that are hurt the most and helping them go solar. John Farrell One of the things that is exciting for you is that you’re actually transitioning from directing the DC Solar United Neighbors group to being the Director of Equity and Inclusion for the entire Solar United Neighbors organization. What might that look like then outside of DC where maybe they don’t have those kinds of policies in place? What will Solar United neighbors be working on to make solar access easier for other folks across the country as you transitioned into this role? Yesenia Rivera So yeah, I am very excited to take the lessons that we learned from Solar for All and working with low income to moderate homeowners here in the district and helping other folks across all of our state programs be able to transition to solar energy. We have several projects in the pipeline. We’re actually recruiting right now in Indiana, City of Indianapolis, to create a pilot for a low income solar in Indianapolis. And of course the biggest challenge is the financing that not everyone has those lovely alternative compliance payments and fines that the district has. So we’re getting creative on how we finance these projects and what can be delivered across the country. But the idea is we want that energy democracy fight to include everyone and across all of our state programs, we want our programs to be equitable and inclusive across the board. John Farrell Are there other cities in particular, other States where you have these low-income programs launching? Yesenia Rivera We have started conversations with different jurisdictions including some in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but we’re doing this state by state approach, step by step. So when opportunity arises and we can consult it in advice, different jurisdictions that are interested in creating low-income solar programs. That’s where we’re stepping in. John Farrell Great. So let me circle back here just at the end of that conversation to ask you about the DC SUN program and specifically, so last year you helped about 75 low income families go solar. The goal of this program is enormous. A hundred thousand families. How do you see that scaling up in the next few months and years? Yesenia Rivera Well, we are not participating in the program anymore, but, I know the district is getting ready to launch the third year of the program. The bulk of those hundred thousand families that are going to come from are going to be served through is community solar or credits in these families, they won’t have the solar on their roof, but they’ll be able to subscribe to a community solar project and see a reduction of 50% on a utility bill, on their energy bills. So that’s where the bulk of the projects are going to come from. But they’re still doing single family homes and every year the district puts out a new request for proposal and have installers and nonprofits compete to work with low income families across DC until we meet a hundred thousand family goal. John Farrell But also around the time hopefully that you get to a hundred percent renewable energy, since the timeline is very similar? Yesenia Rivera Basically. Yes. So the a hundred percent clean energy goal is set by 2032 and the a hundred thousand families are also, the deadline is 2032 so those two things should be happening at the same time so that no one in the district gets left behind. John Farrell I know Solar United Neighbors is operating in, I think it was like, almost 10 or even a dozen States. Now I don’t know if we want to rattle some of those off, but then also just curious if you have any advice for folks who are looking to go solar, whether or not they’re in a state that has a Solar United Neighbors chapter. Yesenia Rivera So we are in 11 States and counting. Minnesota, DC, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland. We also added Indiana, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Florida is actually our largest state program. But we’re looking to expand across the country. But if you want to go solar and you’re not in one of our States, you’re always free to, to join our program. Uh, we do have membership officers where we help people compare proposals, walk them through the questions they should be asking the installers, help them compare. I get, like I said, apples to apples so they can make an informed decision. If you’re in one of the States where we do have a program and we have an active bulk purchase campaign, then by all means go to our website, join the co-op and learn more. There’s no cost at all to join one of our bulk purchase campaigns. It’s free. There’s no commitment, so you sign up, you meet with the installer, you’re not happy with the proposal or just doesn’t fit with your timeline, you’re free to walk away. John Farrell Well, Yesenia, thank you so much for talking with me today and best of luck in your new role with Solar United Neighbors. Yesenia Rivera Thanks John. Appreciate it. John Farrell This is John Farrell, director of ILSR’s energy democracy initiative. I was speaking with Yesenia Rivera, outgoing director of DC sun and new Director of Energy Equity and Inclusion for Solar United Neighbors. We were discussing the Solar for All program in Washington DC and how Solar United Neighbors is incorporating solar access into all of its 11 state chapters. You can catch three additional interviews with the Solar United Neighbors executive director Anya Schoolman in episode 64, 28, and the first ever Local Energy Rules podcast. While you are at our website reviewing these other resources, you can also find more than 90 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.
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)