How the Anacostia Energy Alliance pioneered solar in D.C.

By Ben Delman on August 1, 2016

As the saying goes: “there’s nothing new under the sun”. CPN’s work began in 2007, but we weren’t the first group in D.C. to try to help our neighbors go solar. In the late 1970s and early 80s, an organization called the Anacostia Energy Alliance pioneered using energy efficiency and alternative energy to strengthen the community.

Spun off from the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the group performed no-cost energy audits for community members. It also held community meetings to educate community members about ways to make their homes more energy efficient. The Alliance partnered with a number of local community groups, such as the Neighborhood Housing Services and the United Planning Organization, as part of its work. The goal was to improve the community’s housing stock and lower residents’ energy bills so that they could afford to stay in their homes.

“One of the group’s first steps was to make Anacostia a historic district,” said James Baldwin an Anacostia resident and former AEA board member. “The Alliance thought this would be a good way to help secure government investment in revitalizing the community.”

In addition to its effort educating the community about alternative energy and energy efficiency, the organization also worked with residents to install solar heating systems in their homes. This work was funded through federal and local grants.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm within the neighborhood for solar,” said David Cawley the Alliance’s Director. “The whole promise for solar had been there for some time. The idea of independence, saving money, and helping the environment, all those things were important.”

Turning this promise into results was challenging, but the group persevered. It worked heavily on passive solar, a design style that makes use of natural light and heat from the sun. Cawley noted this was difficult to do in the District. Siting and space issues made re-construction difficult. Still, the organization was able to retrofit a number of back-facing south porches.

The Alliance developed a job training program as part of its energy efficiency education efforts It trained dozens of Anacostia residents on how to perform energy efficiency audits for homes and businesses. These workers performed hundreds of audits in the neighborhood.

Ultimately, the effort stalled as a result of a lack of funding. Federal dollars for the kind of work the Alliance performed dried up in the 1980s. As a response, the organization tried to spin off as a for-profit entity. This lasted until 1984.

“The market for solar at that time hadn’t evolved,” Cawley said. “Even the weatherization part didn’t really evolve yet. In the end, given the scope of what we had, we weren’t able to continue.”

Even still, the Alliance’s work became a model and source for inspiration for folks within Anacostia and the District. Cawley later moved to Vermont where he helped establish a statewide energy efficiency utility, the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation.

In the early 2000’s D.C. officials visited Vermont to learn about the organization. This meeting led to the creation of the DC Sustainable Energy Utility, and organization that helps D.C. homes and businesses save money through energy improvements.