Podcast: What you can do to help grow solar in your community

Solar United Neighbors Executive Director Anya Schoolman recently appeared on the Freeing Energy Podcast to talk about how we’re building an energy system with rooftop solar at the cornerstone. You can find a transcript of the conversation below. If you’re interested to hear more from Anya, she also appeared on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance podcast to discuss solar energy policy in D.C. Have a listen.

ANNOUNCER 1
Can we change the future of energy at the community level. In this episode of the “Freeing Energy Podcast,” host, Sam Easterby talks with Anya Schoolman, the founder and executive director of Solar United Neighbors or SUN.

Listen and learn about SUN’s programs centered on energy rights, how those rights can be leveraged to save money, support clean energy, and fundamentally change our energy system at the community level.

SAM EASTERBY
Hello, Freeing Energy friends. I’m Sam Easterby. I’ll be your host today for a very special episode. My guest is Anya Schoolman. Anya is the founder and executive director of Solar United Neighbors. In that role, she is at the very heart of the solar advocacy movement in the United States, neighborhood by neighborhood and community by community.

Anya’s tireless work in the Greater DC area to promote solar garnered her the White House award for Champions of Change in 2014. More recently, Anya and her now national organization, Solar United Neighbors, have been helping people fight for their energy rights nationwide. Anya, welcome to the Freeing Energy Podcast.

ANYA SCHOOLMAN
Thanks. I’m excited to be here with you.

SAM
This journey started for you back in 2007. You were in the Greater DC area. Your son, Walter, and a friend, Diego, wanted to put in some solar cells at home. That sounds like one of those projects that really could go sideways pretty fast.

Would you tell us a little bit about those first steps in helping Walter? What you’ve learned and how that has shaped your work today?

[I]n most of America, it’s cheaper to make your own electricity on your roof than buy it from the utility. The energy that you make creates local jobs and saves you money. That’s true almost everywhere in the United States.

ANYA
It really started out innocently. Walter and Diego had gone to see the movie “Inconvenient Truth.” They came back being cynical 12‑year‑olds. They were saying, “We can’t wait for the government. The government’s never going to solve our problems. We need to do something today. Let’s go solar.”

We thought about looking into it. We actually called 20 installers. At that time, there was no installers at all based in Washington, D.C. They were only in the suburbs and Maryland. None of them would come into the city.

We finally got a couple to come after pleading. The estimate they gave us was a really large number. It was $40,000 or something. That was pretty much in my mind the end of the project. I said to the guys, “Look, this is too much work and too expensive to do on our own. What if we got the whole neighborhood together? We could bring down the price.”

I thought they would just punt, but they didn’t. They created the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative. They created this little form. They started carrying it around door‑to‑door in our neighborhood. We live in a very diverse, integrated neighborhood in Washington, D.C. with row houses.

Most of the houses are two flights of steps up from the sidewalk to get to their front door. We started to go to the first house. I was helping. By the time we were at the third house I was tired out. If we didn’t have two teenage boys in charge of the project I don’t think we would have ever made it.

They brought it around door‑to‑door. By two weeks, we had 50 houses signed up to join the project. Then it was really neighbors working with neighbors. We kept convening in my living room and other people’s living room. People hosted parties. People chipped in with different expertise. Some lawyers volunteered. Some installers volunteered.

We got involved with legislation in D.C. to help fix what was wrong with our solar market. Two years later, we took 45 houses in our neighborhood solar altogether as a group. That was really the thing that started this whole movement that we’re in the middle of right now.

SAM
That really is an amazing story. That it started with two youngsters and it’s catapulted into a nationwide organization now. For that work, do I understand that the White House presented you with a Champions of Change award in 2014?

ANYA
Yeah. It was really such an honor. The other people being given the award were also just amazing people. It was incredible to meet the whole network from across the country. It’s really helped us take the work to the next level, getting that recognition. It’s helped us start to raise money, start to professionalize, and start to scale.

Now we’ve gone from being a neighborhood organization to a citywide, to a regional. Now, we’re national. We have on‑the‑ground programs in 12 states. We have members and activities in all 50 states.

SAM
That’s amazing. Would you say that that award impacted your work? If it did, how did it impact you?

ANYA
It was really just the recognition, the ability to raise money, and the ability to be validated, so that people understood that it wasn’t just some crazy neighbors. It was actually some people who had learned a lot, and pretty serious.

Part of the reason we got that award was for work we’d done to introduce the idea of community solar and low‑income solar into D.C., because our model has always been that solar should be affordable and accessible to everyone. We’ve never strayed from that idea, that it’s really the whole community has to benefit.

I think when we get to a local level in almost any community, it could be a conservative community, a progressive, rural, urban, people get it immediately. People get how they could save money, and build their own power, and create local jobs, and people get behind it.

SAM
Did Walter and Diego get to go up and receive the award with you?

ANYA
They were both in college by then, and out of town. If they were in town, I would have definitely dragged them along.

SAM
That’s fun. A lot of us, especially at the Freeing Energy Project, we spend a good bit of time thinking about the technology side of local energy, of renewable energy, of solar energy, and we’ve seen so many amazing changes that have occurred in the business.

It really is hard to imagine that people are skeptical today about shifting to solar or renewable energy, but it seems to really come down to a people equation at the end of the day, and people at the local level focusing on that change. Is that your experience?

ANYA
Yeah, absolutely. I think when we get to a local level in almost any community, it could be a conservative community, a progressive, rural, urban, people get it immediately. People get how they could save money, and build their own power, and create local jobs, and people get behind it.

I think where we get into trouble is when it gets up into the political level and it gets caught into these partisan debates, but at the local level, people are just ready for it, and they just want it to be easier to do.

SAM
Given that, tell us a little bit about Solar United Neighbors and some of the programs. For example, I’ve looked at one of your programs, it’s the solar co‑op model. Tell us a little bit about your programs and some of the things that you are doing.

ANYA
Our bedrock thing that we do over, and over, and over, is the solar co‑op. There are similar things people might have heard of elsewhere, called Solarize campaigns. The co‑op’s a little different because it’s really run, and managed, and led by local communities.

If there’s a municipal partner or somebody else involved ‑‑ a church, a school, a university ‑‑ they’re there in a supportive role, but it’s the local community that really takes control of the process.

We’ve done 30‑megawatts of solar. That’s over 2,000 houses. We’ve done 210 buying groups since we started keeping careful records on Salesforce, so it was probably another 20 before that.

What it is, you get a group of people together, you teach them about solar. You evaluate their roofs and help them understand if they have a good place for solar, and then we issue a request for proposal out on behalf of that group. It’s a service that we provide, and then the group gets bids.

The companies are bidding to do all of the installs of the group. We save the companies a lot of money by finding, educating, and weeding out customers, so that the customer acquisition or the cost of getting customers is much, much cheaper for the companies. Therefore, the companies can make a really good, aggressive bid.

They also know that we know what we’re doing. We’re checking their references, the quality, warranties, equipment, etc. Then the community convenes a special bid selection group who evaluates the bids.

We answer questions, we help them understand it, and then the community itself picks one installer to do all their installs, and then we support all the way along. We check in with the installer every week, “How is it going? Are there problems with permitting? Are there problems with the utility interconnection? Is the homeowner getting back to you?”

We’re the on‑board troubleshooters all the way through the process, and we help the whole group go solar. By going solar as a group, not only do people get better prices, which is important, but they also get a better process. They have power to fight the barriers that come along the way, and believe me, in most communities, there’s a lot of barriers to going solar.

SAM
I imagine that the regulatory landscape, the hurdles that you faced with homeowners, neighborhoods, communities, along with utilities, were very different back in 2007. What was it like then, and how have things changed? Is it easier to gain acceptance for local solar energy today?

ANYA
I don’t know if it’s easy. I think it’s been methodical. The way we think about it is, every time we do a project, if we run into a barrier, we take on that barrier as a group, and by organizing, we have an incredible track record of success. When we started in many towns, they, for example, didn’t have a permitting system set up for solar at all.

1 person or 2 person complaining, the mayor wouldn’t get an action, but if we got 50, or 75, or 100 homeowners all calling the mayor one week and saying, “Fix the permitting system. It’s broken. It doesn’t exist. It’s cumbersome. It’s too expensive,” whatever, all of a sudden that would go to the top of the list.

You could see towns in two weeks fixing a permitting system when it had been weeks before.

Same has happened with utilities. When we started in DC, it was sometimes taking six months to get permission from the utility to connect your system. We’ve started a system of filing complaints by all our homeowners at the Public Service Commission. The public service commission is the agency that regulates the utilities.

Once those things get into the dockets, once they get filed, it’s essentially like the report card for the utility. It’s part of their record. It gets looked at when they go to ask for rate increases, and all of a sudden, we went from six months to six weeks and even less.

It’s really about organizing people, taking the barriers head‑on, complaining loudly, and then cycling back and making the system work better and better.

SAM
That leads into my next question too, and I think you have just done it, of giving us a snapshot of what some of the best practices are for adopting solar in neighborhoods, or communities, or even by institutions. Are there other elements, too, that you would pass along to folks?

ANYA
People need to get educated about price. There’s a lot of bad information about price. If you’re going with a group, that’s one thing. If you’re not, get bids from multiple companies. Check references, check their track record, and really get educated about price, just being an educated customer, and sharing information.

One other thing I would say is, once you go solar, you need to tell other people about it. What we see over and over is that people have outdated 10‑year‑old information about solar. They think it costs $40,000, not $10,000. They think it’s 10 years ago, essentially.

One of the things that we’ve been really working on is a National Solar Tour, where anyone in the country can sign up online. It’s nationalsolartour.org, and they can have an open house in the fall in the first weekend in October, show off their system, but more importantly, explain to their neighbors how easy it was to go solar.

SAM
Anya, one of the things that we certainly seem to hear a lot about these days are our energy rights. On your website, you talk a good bit about solar energy rights. What are those energy rights or those solar energy rights from your perspective?

ANYA
There’s a fundamental right that we have to make our own energy on our own private property without interference and abuse by the utilities. What we are seeing is a well‑organized strategy by the utilities to try to shut down rooftop solar and community solar.

We’ve seen a real shift where utilities are open to the kind of solar that they can own, mark up, and profit from themselves.

The idea that you can make your own power is really an anathema to the utilities, and so what we’re seeing is all sorts of campaigns to do fixed charges, and minimum bills, and take away your right for excess generation, or make it illegal or difficult to interconnect.

Most states, for example, have an absolute cap on the number of systems that can be connected to the grid, and we’re coming up on those caps in state after state.

There shouldn’t be any cap on the amount of systems that can be connected to the grid. Anybody should be able to build solar, and then fundamentally, if you have extra solar, if you have extra energy that you’re making, you should be able to sell it to your neighbor or share it with your neighbor.

It’s pretty simple, but you would be surprised how hard we have to fight for these simple rights, state, after state, after state.

There’s a fundamental right that we have to make our own energy on our own private property without interference and abuse by the utilities. What we are seeing is a well‑organized strategy by the utilities to try to shut down rooftop solar and community solar.

SAM
Right down to the community level as well.

ANYA
That’s right.

SAM
We’ve heard the term, the democratization of energy, more freedom to choose where your energy comes from, and another somewhat new term, prosumers, people producing and consuming electricity.

It seems like you’re touching on those things, but how do those ideas impact people in communities today? What are the concepts that are a part of these elements, this prosumer, this democratization, that are important for people to think about?

ANYA
I think there’s two key concepts. On the issue of democratization, I think it often gets lost that we’re on the cusp of a technological revolution.

It’s being fought out right now about whether communities, individuals, homeowners and businesses get to take control of their energy, or whether they’re going to remain a passive customer, where they just buy it from an investor‑owned utility or a local monopoly utility.

I think that democratization about energy is really about building transparency and fairness in the system, not just letting utilities make an automatic rate of return no matter what they do, no matter how they serve you, no matter how they invest their money. That model has really reached an end.

The idea of a prosumer in some ways is even more interesting because it’s about taking the people who use energy from being a passive consumer ‑‑ where the utilities’ job is just make as much energy as people use, and the consumers’ job is to just use as much as they want, whenever they want ‑‑ and making them an active part of a dynamic system.

I think what is right around the corner, the potential that people need to see is the idea that we can all be in a dynamic system linked together, where we can produce energy, we can store energy, we can put energy into the grid when other people need it.

We can save energy in our batteries when there’s too much energy, and therefore we can smooth out the prices, we can make energy cheaper for everyone, we can integrate massive amounts, up to 100 percent of renewable energy in the grid, and we can do all of that while saving people money.

That’s the really delicious promise of this prosumer movement, that it involves individual people becoming active participants in the market, not just passive consumers in the market.

SAM
When you’re talking with people at the neighborhood level, at the community level, what point jumps out more? What factor leads the discussion? Is it around the cost of the energy and the reliability of our energy, or is it around climate change? What elements are leading the charge?

ANYA
One of the things that’s really part of our bedrock approach is we never try to convince people to go solar. We are starting with people who already want to go solar and we’re helping them to do it, and making it easier for them.

What we find over and over in our discussions is, people are already convinced. They’re convinced for a mixture of reasons. Many are really motivated by climate change. As many are motivated by self‑sufficiency. I just saw a postcard from someone…we’re writing this national postcard thing which is, “I Love My Solar.”

We’re sending postcards from people who have solar to all of our state and federal legislators to raise the awareness of how much people love their solar. It was a picture of someone’s house. It said, “Ready to Retire.”

I was just like, “Wow.” It captured so many aspects of this, it captures cost. It captures your obligation to the next generation. It captures self‑sufficiency and locking in your expenses. It’s just this sense of total satisfaction like I did something real and tangible and bam, microphone drop, ready to retire.

SAM
We’ve seen a number of different studies that talk about the cost of solar. You touched on this a little bit, that there are a lot of misconceptions.

There’s a lot of bad information out there about the cost of installing solar. But one of the big elements that we have seen was the cost of meeting regulations. Have you seen that change since 2007? Have you seen a difference in those costs? Are you encouraged by what’s happening with regard to regulations and the regulatory requirements?

ANYA
It’s still a big problem. In markets where we’ve been working, we have steadily drove down those costs in a number of ways. One is putting pressure on government to make it easier to get permits and easier and smoother to get interconnection.

We’ve helped, but there are so many more communities. There’s so much more work to be done. The problem is that every municipality has its own permitting system. There’s been a lot of national work to try to get uniform, online, shorter systems. It’s a heavy lift.

I think there’s a lot more work to be done. As people get more and more used to solar, that work and that improvement will go faster. I remember when I took the head electrical inspector to DC up on my roof. He said, “That’s the first solar system I’ve ever seen up front.”

That was just 10 years ago. Sometimes I think we get really frustrated. More and more municipalities are getting on board and trying to fix those systems and lower those costs. But there’s a lot we could do to make it better.

SAM
That brings up the question too. You are rolling out programs in all 50 states. You have well‑established programs across the country. As I look at those different programs in different states that you’re more active in, it seems to me that some of them might be a little more difficult to work in than others.

Is that the case? Or are there some areas around the country that are a little bit easier to work with than others?

ANYA
Yeah, there’s definitely a huge variation. There are some states that have incentives for solar. Most states have no incentives. There’s a difference there in terms of the number of years of payback.

Then there’s just the general economy. Working in a state like West Virginia that has a really high poverty rate, there’s just less people that have money around, even for home improvements much less going solar.

For example, in West Virginia, besides our co‑ops which are small but continuing, we also do a lot of work helping farmers take advantage of the US Department of Agriculture grants for renewable energy, so that we can help small business and farms in rural areas take advantage of solar.

It’s actually a great program. It’s a 25 percent grant on top of the federal tax credit for going solar. Depending on the state, we might focus more on some issues than others. It’s more a difference of how fast and how hard the program grows.

SAM
That’s, of course, working at the state, county or government level. Are you seeing communities and utilities themselves working together a little bit better today, or more today, to find solutions? What are some of the examples that you’ve run into?

ANYA
I actually see utilities becoming more organized against rooftop solar than they were 10 years ago, in a lot of ways. They are starting to see it take off. They’re worried that they’re going to have less customers. It’s essentially like when we had land lines and the phone companies started to realize that people weren’t going to use their product any more.

There is an element of panic in the utility community. They’re coming out with crazy, punitive measures like fixed charges and even bans on rooftop solar. I don’t think it’s constructive.

I do see utilities embracing utility‑owned solar. There’s been a huge shift there, where they’re like, “OK. If you want solar, we’ll build it. We’ll mark it up exorbitantly, then we’ll sell it to you.”

We’ve seen these utility Green Terra or green community solar programs popping up all over the place, which is not a bad thing. For some people, it’s really helpful, but it’s not what we’re about. What we’re about is really community or individually‑owned solar, not utility‑owned solar.

I think we’ve got a long way to go. Originally, the push back was just from the investor‑owned utilities. Now we’re starting to see even local municipal and rural electric co‑ops pushing back as well.

The idea that you can make your own power is really an anathema to the utilities, and so what we’re seeing is all sorts of campaigns to do fixed charges, and minimum bills, and take away your right for excess generation, or make it illegal or difficult to interconnect.

SAM
Interesting. Sort of an institutional self‑preservation?

ANYA
Yeah. I think everybody could see a future in which utilities played a central role in this world where they’re the balancing mechanism. They are managing the data, the meters, the transmission and making this whole complex distributed system work together.

I think people would be willing to pay utilities very well for that work, but that means they have to change their model. Their model isn’t based on building infrastructure and marking it up, or owning generation and marking it up. It’s a real shift in the business model.

SAM
The additional of batteries to the mix, batteries plus solar, it really does seem to be a way forward to address that intermittency of solar power, as well as some of the issues around seasonality.

How do batteries figure into the work that your organization is doing? Do you see different challenges from the regulatory standpoint when batteries are added to the mix?

ANYA
I agree with you. I think batteries are the key to making the whole thing work. I think we’re going to see it take off. What we’re really focused on is, how do you get the small player involved in the battery and storage market in a way that’s fair? It’s complicated right now because it adds about a third to the cost of going solar.

A lot of people, that pushes them over the edge in terms of what they can come up with. We’re seeing the price of batteries go down. The fact that people are willing to pay to be able to keep the lights on when the grid goes down, the fact that hurricanes and storms are increasing.

Now what I’m hoping is, there will be the emergence of a whole suite of programs like demand response programs, where people will actually get paid for having a battery and then making that capacity available to the grid and to the network if it’s accessible by the utility.

If utilities can get beyond the idea of having to own all of the resources and the networks, I think we could create a dynamic system that really benefits everybody.

SAM
Do I take it that you see utilities responding a little bit differently when batteries are added in?

ANYA
Some of them are, yeah. It’s very uneven. You’re seeing some utilities actually put up incentives for storage and some of them still blocking it. They’re all over the place right now, but I think that’s something that we’re going to see really rapid movement in the next even less than five years, three years.

SAM
National elections are quickly taking the spotlight in the United States. What is Solar United Neighbors’ message to candidates?

ANYA
We have two messages. One is an immediate ask to extend the investment tax credit for rooftop solar. It’s set to start stepping down. While we have such huge incentives and subsidies out there for the rest of energy, we don’t think it’s time to step down the tax credit for solar. So, extend the ITC for solar.

Then I would say that really our bedrock is to affirm the right to either affirm the access to the grid for anyone to make their own clean energy on their own private property. It should be an essential right of all Americans. I’d like to see candidates in all the parties getting behind that idea.

SAM
Anya, what are two or three specific recommendations you would make to our listeners for how they can engage their communities?

ANYA
What I would suggest is to start by doing a project. What I see all the time is people get excited about this idea and they go straight to the really super‑complex, like we want solar on all of our schools, or we want to build a community‑owned micro grid that helps low income families…Wonderful ideas.

What I would say is, “Dial it back. Do a project, even if it’s really small. Put solar on a gazebo in the park. Put a solar awning over your school, one‑kilowatt or two panels. Do something small, and go through the whole project cycle. Buy it, install it, interconnect it, permit it, celebrate it. Then do it again.”

If people would start taking that approach we could scale this whole market much faster. People get bogged down in these really grand ideas that sometimes take 5 to 10 years. If they would start scaling, they’d address the barriers. Then they could scale, then they could do it again and they could do it again. Pretty soon, we’re just going to see people taking over.

SAM
That is really, really sage advice. It is amazing to me that this all started back when Walter and Diego came to you with an idea.

Anya, we like to ask all of our participants in these podcasts a handful of questions just to get a snapshot of what people are thinking about currently. Share something that you think non‑industry folks would find most surprising about the work you are doing in this new world of energy.

ANYA
What I want people to understand is that in most of America, it’s cheaper to make your own electricity on your roof than buy it from the utility. The energy that you make creates local jobs and saves you money. That’s true almost everywhere in the United States.

SAM
If you could wave a magic wand and see one thing changed on the transition to clean, renewable energy, what would that change be?

ANYA
I’d use the magic wand to make sure that every home, every office, every parking lot, and every building with a roof in the country is outfitted with solar. It allows people to generate and control their own clean energy.

The transition has to be built on energy independence for everyone, and trading monopoly, dirty energy for monopoly, renewable energy is a bad deal. We have the technology to make energy clean and democratic, so why not do it?

SAM
What do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate, store, and distribute electricity in the next five years?

ANYA
I think what we’re going to see is a really robust set of rules for how to integrate storage and demand response into a dynamic grid. By demand response, meaning giving individual, not just big companies but homes and small businesses the ability to increase or decrease the amount of electricity they use, so that the grid can be managed sustainably.

What I would tell anybody is, get involved. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid or you’re so old you can’t walk anymore. There’s things that you can do. You can start a project. You can write your mayor. You can follow what’s going on at your public utility commission.

SAM
What would you say to someone who asks, “What can I do to help make the change to clean energy?”

ANYA
What I would tell anybody is, get involved. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid or you’re so old you can’t walk anymore. There’s things that you can do. You can start a project. You can write your mayor. You can follow what’s going on at your public utility commission.

Join Solar United Neighbors. We have ways for everyone to get involved at any level of sophistication or time availability. You can host an open house at our national tour, send a postcard to your legislator, earn a SUN Patch for your scouting troop, or organize a solar co‑op in your neighborhood.

SAM
Anya, those are amazing suggestions, and what I’d like for you to share with folks today is, what’s the website that you would have people visit?

ANYA
We’re at solarunitedneighbors.org, and we also have special sites for this postcard campaign, which is I Love My Solar, the nationalsolartour.org.

SAM
Anya, this has been an amazing discussion. You’ve shared so much today. There’s a lot more I know that we could talk about, but I really do appreciate you taking the time to talk with us on the Freeing Energy Podcast.

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