Photo of Henderson-Hopkins school, site of a future solar installation
Henderson-Hopkins school in Baltimore, Maryland, future site of Climate Access Fund’s community-owned solar installation.
Climate Access Fund

Getting a community solar project off the ground is no small feat—financing, siting, regulations, and other processes can cause delays, drive up costs, and impact the project’s benefits. To tackle these challenges, mission-driven organizations are developing innovative solutions to make projects feasible while maximizing the benefits of community solar for historically underserved and overburdened communities, including bill savings, community ownership, and local workforce development. Maryland’s Climate Access Fund got its community-owned project at the Henderson-Hopkins School in Baltimore to the finish line, and it can serve as a model for other projects around the country.

When the Maryland legislature passed a community solar pilot program in 2015, Lynn Heller, Founder and CEO of the Climate Access Fund, recognized that the community solar model allowed more low- and moderate-income (LMI) households to participate in the clean energy transition. So, she and the Coalition for Green Capital established the Climate Access Fund, a green bank focused on filling financing gaps that prevent community solar developers from serving more LMI households. 

The Climate Access Fund initially focused on creating a fund, supported by the state of Maryland, that would compensate solar developers for late or defaulted payments by LMI subscribers until non-paying subscribers could be replaced. While this fund was helpful to developers, Climate Access Fund realized that low-cost financing was also needed to encourage developers to serve more LMI customers, and so it added a debt product to its offerings. 

Even with these two financing products, Climate Access Fund found that community solar developers were not building smaller projects (less than 1 megawatt) for underserved communities. So, they began developing this type of project on their own.

After some trial and error, Climate Access Fund started a new project with the East Baltimore Community School, informally known as Henderson-Hopkins. A kindergarten through eighth-grade school with around 600 students, roughly 95% of whom are Black and live in LMI households, Henderson-Hopkins administrators supported the idea of providing lower electricity bills for family members in the district. The 874 kilowatt community solar system projected to be built by Climate Access Fund in 2023 will save an estimated 175 families $1.6 million dollars over the lifetime of the system. 

Beyond saving households money, the project is helping to build community wealth through an innovative ownership strategy. Climate Access Fund is testing a crowdfunding model that allows investors to own a share of the project. While these investors can be located anywhere in the United States, Climate Access Fund has secured grant funding to reserve some shares to distribute to LMI families consistently participating in the community solar project, allowing them to own an asset of the project that should grow in value.

The benefits don’t stop there, though: Climate Access Fund is also using multiple strategies to provide local workforce development. They plan to hire a paid community representative to be the face of the project, recruiting interested households and leading a clean energy club for sixth graders at the school. They also plan to partner with a local nonprofit workforce development organization that will recruit and train paid apprentices for engineering, procurement, and construction solar jobs. 

All these innovative measures are supported by Climate Access Fund’s mission-based approach, which focuses on maximizing benefits to the community. This approach required many conversations with the school and community, several creative and mission-aligned partnerships, and a significant number of grants to cover the first-time costs of the project such as legal fees and contract development. 

Lynn recognizes that not all developers are willing or able to overcome the significant economic challenges of these smaller, city-based projects, and that few developers’ business models allow them to share project ownership. Lynn hopes that this project can be a model for how to address financial barriers faced by community-owned projects located in historically underserved neighborhoods. Low-cost debt from a national green bank or from private foundations and tax equity opportunities for smaller projects will make it easier to develop future projects like Henderson-Hopkins. 

In the meantime, the small team at the Climate Access Fund are pursuing their goal to establish a replicable community solar financing model that maximizes community benefits. By including the Baltimore community as collaborators, representatives, and even owners in this project, they hope this project can serve as an example of truly democratized clean energy.