When good trumps profit: solar companies go philanthropic

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Access to energy is a global issue, and funding is not always found where it is needed most. This is why many players in the solar industry are choosing to forge their own path, creating non-profit organizations to bring photovoltaics to communities around the world who could use this aid.

Here is a look at three success stories in philanthropic efforts: Twende Solar, The Honnold Foundation and Solar Crowdsource. Even a seemingly insignificant donation from a business and an individual can make a big difference to many people currently living in a non-electrified environment.

‘Let’s go’ solar

When John Grieser, the founder of Oregon solar installer John Grieser, traveled to rural Tanzania for college credit ten years ago, he discovered that residents did not have constant access to electricity. Recognizing that solar power could deliver power where the African country’s power grid fell short, Grieser and other Elemental Energy employees founded Solar Twende, an autonomous non-profit organization focused on national and international philanthropic solar development.

Twende Solar facilitated the construction of a solar panel in the mountains of Peru. Solar Twende

Twende, which means ‘let’s go’ in Swahili, was founded on the principle that there is no need to wait for government help – that members of private industry can and should always work to provide a access to energy for those who need it.

“For a community living in a rural area of ​​Peru, you can install a system on this land and within days they can have light in their house, a clean stove and the ability for students to study at night. ”Said Marissa. Johnson, executive director of Twende Solar.

The organization tries to take on all projects offered to it by non-profit organizations and low-income communities in need, with a focus on empowering women, children and caregivers. health.

Internationally, Twende has developed projects such as a 6.6 kW solar + storage system in a Guatemalan school, which enabled the school to start a computer program. In its own backyard, Twende has built a 100 kW park at Portland Rescue Mission homeless shelter. In its fifth year, Twende Solar installed a total of 163.4 kW for communities in need, with the Portland project being the largest.

“It becomes a matter of justice locally,” Johnson said. “I think the whole nation has a record this year with the amount of work here locally on inequality and justice in communities. Even before that, we recognized that there was work to be done at home.

Twende’s projects are funded through a combination of donations, grants, corporate sponsorships and financial partners who donate a percentage of their sales to these photovoltaic systems, and donations are tax deductible.

If cash funding is needed, Twende also relies on donations of solar technology and time. The design of the systems is managed by volunteers and partnerships with suppliers provide racks and solar panels.

“It’s something that has kind of filled me with joy since I started this job two years ago,” Johnson said. “I think this reflects the fact that this particular industry is for people who are doing this, not just for a paycheck. It’s for the people who put in the effort to see a real, substantial difference.

Twende does not fully fund solar projects and requires some buy-in from the organizations receiving the systems, but with the cost savings, the panels will pay for themselves quickly.

The organization has a 388 kW pipeline of projects, of which 383 kW are planned for the Pacific Northwest. The organization is exploring how more nonprofits can develop community solar projects in Oregon. At the institutional level, Twende reflected during the pandemic on how to make their work more equitable and inclusive, “by amplifying the great work that is already underway, instead of us stepping in and trying to solve the problems for them”, Johnson said.

Expanding access to solar

Alex Honnold was the subject of the 2018 documentary “Free Solo”, following his exploits as a mountaineer, scaling unattached mountains. But six years before captivating audiences with his daring climbs, he launched a donor-advised fund and began donating a third of his income to installing solar power for people who didn’t have access to it. energy – while still living in an Econoline van.

“At first he was focusing on solar energy because he felt like it was a very simple and transparent way to have an immediate positive impact on people’s lives and that’s something that s. ‘expands well globally,’ said Dory Trimble, executive director of the Honnold Foundation. .

Famous climber Alex Honnold assists installers on a rooftop solar project facilitated by his foundation. Honnold Foundation

Since its inception, the Honnold Foundation became a 501 (c) (3) with four full-time employees. His work focuses on bringing solar power to nonprofit organizations and providing them with grants and project management support on a global scale.

“Our mission is really focused on this balancing point between social and economic equity and access to solar power,” Trimble said.

The funding mechanisms come from the foundation’s “Core” and “Community” funds. Core funding comes from $ 100,000 in annual grants given to nonprofits around the world that are heavily involved in their communities and install solar panels. One example is KOPPESDA, a beneficiary based on Sumba Island, Indonesia, which allows residents to pay for solar power with non-cash payments, which Trimble says are often items like oil. virgin coconut or woven palm baskets.

“Before, they let people pay with chickens, but the chickens kept escaping,” she said.

The foundation recently launched the Community Fund, which is focused on the United States and intended for nonprofits run by BIPOC in heavily polluted areas. Sunrun has partnered with the initiative and the foundation plans to bring solar power to nonprofit organizations in Memphis, Tennessee; Washington DC; and New York.

“The idea is, basically, to reduce carbon production, increase the adoption of solar energy and keep money in the pockets of the nonprofits that really need it to provide essential services in their communities, ”Trimble said.

The Honnold Foundation is currently supporting a micro-grid in Puerto Rico that will support 17 businesses with a battery backup that can maintain power for 10 days in the event of a grid failure. The foundation relies on fundraising to provide grants, some of which come from Honnold himself, and is currently able to support solar development for 18 organizations around the world.

“People hear ‘foundation’ and they think ‘endowment’, but we don’t have an endowment and we never will,” Trimble said. “We think climate change is an urgent problem, and it doesn’t really matter if we have a lot of money 30 years from now if the world is on fire. It is our goal to bring as much money as possible and give it to worthy partners.

Take over from the state

Don Moreland founded Solar crowd source in 2015 in response to Georgian rooftop and community solar energy policies. He observed community Solarize campaigns taking place in the west that did not rely on grants from the Department of Energy and wanted to start something similar in his state.

“There was just a need for this in Georgia, because if we had solar and public net meters and community tax credits and RPS and the RECs were really of value, then we might not have no need for a Solarize program, ”Moreland said. “This was an opportunity to provide another resource in the community and in the industry to do more volume and offer more discounts and provide a forum where you can educate the public on the benefits of solar power.”

Solar Crowdsource is hosting a groundbreaking ceremony for its Solarize Atlanta community project for Quest Communities. Solar Crowdsource / Creative Solar USA

Moreland discovered that many communities did not have the resources to launch a Solarize campaign. Solar Crowdsource was therefore launched to provide the technologies and services necessary to start these programs. Solar Crowdsource campaigns begin by forming coalitions with nonprofit organizations in a community. Then, a steering committee is set up to find funding.

The campaign lasts four to six months, and during that time Solar Crowdsource is organizing public awareness and education activities and running competitive bids for the position. After the tender process, the contractor is selected by a vote of the committee members. Participating residents receive group price discounts and a free system evaluation.

“I think there was room in the market for a trusted third party who could engage with a community and go through the RFP process and have the credibility to select a contractor,” he said. -he declares.

Solar Crowdsource organized 12 campaigns in Georgia, resulting in 650 solar and storage installations, or 4.6 MW of solar capacity and 1.9 MWh of energy storage. In each campaign, Solar Crowdsource tries to donate a solar system to a non-profit organization in the selected community. Entrepreneurs who apply for the Solarize campaign disclose how much of their revenue will go to the donated system. The amount they are willing to donate is certainly a determining factor in selecting entrepreneurs, Moreland said.

“The entrepreneur, his income with these programs can run into millions of dollars. A percentage of that is small in comparison, ”Moreland said.

A recently donated system was for the MLK Day project in Solar Crowdsource’s Solarize Decatur-Dekalb campaign. The MLK Day project serves seniors living in a gentrifying neighborhood on a fixed income. Adding the solar system cuts their energy bills.

Philanthropy takes many forms, and while any addition of solar energy is valuable, it can have more immediate impacts for some populations who cannot afford it.

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