Buying in bulk has long been an excellent way to save money on groceries, office supplies and craft beer. Thanks to a new public-private coalition of local sustainability and environmental justice advocates, that same concept is coming to solar energy systems and battery storage installations.
Solarize Asheville-Buncombe launches Thursday, April 1. Through bulk purchasing, the campaign aims to reduce the costs of buying and installing solar equipment and pass the savings on to at least 100 residents and businesses by the end of 2021.
Spearheaded by the nonprofit Blue Horizons Project, the partnership includes the city of Asheville, Buncombe County, Green Built Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, WENOCA Sierra Club Group, Hood Huggers International, MountainTrue and Umoja Health Wellness and Justice Collective, as well as several individual community members. Sophie Mullinax, project manager for Blue Horizons, says that broad coalition is meant to make Solarize as inclusive an effort as possible.
“We reached out to pretty much everyone we knew to try and build a diverse stakeholder group and steering committee,” Mullinax says. “We’ve got folks who are very steeped in sustainability and the environment, but I think the common thread is definitely that we don’t want to just make this a campaign that just discounts solar even further for the people who can already afford it.”
Everyone under the sun
With both Asheville and Buncombe County committing over the past four years to power the entire community with renewable energy by 2042, Mullinax says the timing was right for a bulk solar project. And a “low-income solar installation program” was specifically written into the Blue Horizon Project’s scope of work in a 2020 funding contract with Buncombe County.
Planning began in fall 2020, during which the group consulted data from the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute’s 2013 Solarize Asheville campaign — the first Solarize program in North Carolina, which led to 52 contracts — plus institutional knowledge from Solar Crowdsource, the Georgia-based company running the online platform for the campaign. Beyond increasing access to solar energy for what Mullinax calls “everyday people,” the Solarize Asheville-Buncombe team added a few more goals to address specific local needs.
“We’re researching creative ways — and it’s definitely an uphill battle — to further buy down the cost for installations for low- and moderate-income community members, as well as develop a way for community members to embark on a workforce development program within the scope of this campaign to hopefully create pathways to actual real jobs in clean energy,” Mullinax says.
Those LMI and workforce development components are still “very much in the development phase,” Mullinax says, and Solarize Asheville-Buncombe has multiple subcommittees working on solutions. The group is applying for funding to pay for LMI installations and seeks to partner with such organizations as Green Opportunities and Mountain Area Workforce Development to achieve the campaign’s employment goal. For now, the focus is on educating residents about the benefits of solar energy and taking advantage of the opportunity to join the bulk purchase.
Solarize is also seeking bids through Tuesday, March 2, from Asheville-area solar companies to source and install the technology. In choosing an industry partner, Mullinax says the goal is to find a local company with the capability to meet the anticipated number of installations.
“On top of that, we really want to see a company that’s committed to the goals set forth in the [funding contract] and throughout this campaign, which are a commitment to innovation, a commitment to climate justice, being willing to work creatively with us and partner with us in helping achieve those goals for the LMI component and the workforce development component — even as we don’t know exactly how they’ll shake out,” adds Mullinax. “We want a partner who’s really willing to work with us on getting us there.”
Partners in shine
Several Solarize Asheville-Buncombe partners already have a history of bringing solar energy to local communities. Jeremiah LeRoy, Buncombe County’s sustainability officer, led a successful campaign to outfit Buncombe County, A-B Tech, Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools buildings with solar systems. The ongoing projects are being managed by Asheville-based MB Haynes Corp., and LeRoy is confident the continuing lessons from that process will be scalable to the new endeavor.
“In our experience, aggregated procurement is an effective strategy to lower costs,” LeRoy says, citing savings of up to 25% in past Solarize campaigns. “The goal of the campaign is to make solar more affordable and more accessible to households in the county. The more homes that sign up, the more everyone in the program can potentially benefit from decreased costs.”
In addition to running Buncombe County’s sustainability work, LeRoy serves on the Solarize Asheville-Buncombe steering committee. He sees the campaign as an excellent catalyst to help the county achieve its 100% renewable goal for the broader community.
“I have high hopes for the program,” he says. “We certainly have a community that cares deeply for the environment and wants programs like this to be successful. It’s incumbent upon us to effectively market the campaign and show people that solar can make both good environmental, as well as good financial sense.”
DeWayne Barton, founder of Hood Huggers International, is similarly optimistic and views Solarize Asheville-Buncombe as a means to expand clean energy efforts in the local Black community. Through his organization, Barton has previously installed solar systems at the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens. Plans are also in place to outfit panels on homes, a church and the Burton Street Community Center.
“To me, this is a continuation to try and make this hustle work, and try to sustain it,” Barton says. “A lot of times, we have these ‘holiday projects,’ and then you get this money and it goes away and the whole momentum dies. We want to keep momentum up and keep creating opportunities.”
Barton hopes that his presence and ideas will go far to ensure that underserved communities won’t be left out. More specifically, he sees the campaign as an investment in the future and seeks to “get younger people looking at this opportunity like a co-op or business” through his commitment to making the workforce element a reality.
“If I’m training up some young cats and trying get them ready, when they’re ready, I want an opportunity to be waiting for them,” Barton says. “You’ve got to keep practicing. We say ‘unity,’ but we have to practice it and make that real.”