1.6 Gigawatts Of New Solar Energy Potential From The Grassroots

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It’s an open secret that the US Department of Energy is a huge fan of renewable energy, despite the coal-friendly rhetoric emanating out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Along with the usual funding for established research organizations and private sector partners, DOE is also working under the media radar with grassroots organizations to bring more solar energy to more people — especially lower and middle income populations that are falling behind in the solar race.

community solar energy

The RE-volv Solar Energy Model

One beneficiary of DOE’s attention to the grassroots is the nonprofit organization RE-Volv. The group first crossed the CleanTechnica radar back in 2013 for its efforts to bring solar energy to other nonprofit organizations.

Financing a new solar installation can be a challenge for nonprofits, partly because they can’t take advantage of tax incentives, and partly because other priorities prevent them from putting the up-front financing together.

RE-volv looked at the numbers — more than 1.5 million non-profit organizations and 30,000 co-ops in the US — and decided there was an unmet need out there.

The RE-volv model is pretty straightforward. It includes elements of crowdfunding and power purchase agreements.

The organization enlists local college students to raise money for local nonprofits to install solar panels on site. The nonprofit still doesn’t get a tax break, but the donors do.

The donations go into the RE-volv Solar Seed Fund revolving loan. The newly minted solar owners pay back into the fund through savings in electricity costs and/or other donated funds.

DOE Hearts RE-volv

RE-volv also crossed the DOE radar early on. In 2015 it won funding through the agency’s SunShot Catalyst business innovation initiative and was included in DOE’s National Community Solar Partnership along with numerous other nonprofits.

The partnership aimed at bringing solar energy to lower and middle income households and the nonprofits that support them. While the Oval Office may have dropped the ball on that program, DOE is still pursuing the mission.

In 2017, DOE enrolled RE-volv as one of 170 teams in its multi-year Solar In Your Community Challenge, and pitched the organization in an article pitching three creative ways to finance community solar energy projects.

RE-volv  also caught the eye of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which began donating matching funds to the organization in 2017.

Solar Energy In The USA, Grassroots Edition

That brings us up to the Solar In Your Community Challenge, in which DOE put up a total of $5 million in prize money to “incentivize the development of new approaches to increase the affordability of electricity while expanding solar adoption across America.”

The agency targeted approaches tailored to the needs of “nonprofits, faith-based organizations, state and local governments, and low- and moderate-income communities.”

The winners were announced on May 16, and RE-volv was one of 12 teams recognized for bringing solar energy into new community markets. In particular, DOE noted that the organization had trained more than 250 student “solar ambassadors” during the challenge, raised $330,000, and saved ratepayers about 25% on their utility bills.

According to the competition guidelines, qualifying teams had to show that at least 20% of their projects targeted lower and middle income populations. RE-volv hit a score of 100%.

Beyond Solar Energy In Your Community

In an emailed press release about its prize, RE-volv founder and executive director Andreas Karelas gives full credit to DOE for supporting grassroots financing.

“The support and guidance from the DOE has been a game changer for RE-volv,” he explains. “We’ve been able to rapidly scale our operations and impact over the past year and a half, empowering more people to bring solar to those communities that need it most.”

According to Karelas, so far 30,000 people in six states have benefited from RE-volv projects alone.

Here’s where it gets real interesting. RE-volv calculates that if all 170 participants in the Community Solar Challenge are able to follow through on their plans, the cumulative result would be to assemble 1.6 gigawatts of new solar by 2020 and provide solar energy for hundreds of nonprofits across the country.

That’s an awful lot of community clean power for DOE to support, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The agency’s SolSmart intiative is well on its way to reaching the goal of 300 enlistees in a program designed to reduce solar costs related to local red tape. The focus on cost-cutting has benefits across the board, including non-profits as well as private sector solar fans.

The initiative rolled out in 2018 and it has already recruited scores of municipalities, counties, and regional organizations. You can practically hear them kvelling through the Intertubes:

As of today, there are 265 SolSmart designees across 37 states and the District of Columbia that represent 71 million Americans…Across the country, recent SolSmart communities have taken bold actions to become more resilient, sustainable, and attractive to solar businesses that can drive job growth and economic development.

Bold action! Do tell!

DOE also supports the community solar model, and it has been working closely with the powerful rural electric cooperative sector to pump more renewable energy into local communities.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to RE-volv to see how its plans are impacted by all this DOE activity, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Image: via US Department of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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