The Solar in Your Community Challenge is a $5 million prize competition designed to incentivize the development of new approaches to increase the affordability of electricity while expanding solar adoption across America. The challenge ran from May 2017 to October 2018 to improve solar access for nonprofits, faith-based organizations, state and local governments, and low- and moderate-income communities, all of which face unique barriers to adopting solar. The winners were announced May 16, 2019.
Competing for $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance over 18 months, teams across the country developed projects and programs that expand solar access to underserved groups, while proving that their business models can be widely replicated and adopted. Consultants and coaches provided technical assistance and resources to help the teams develop their business models.
The Solar in Your Community Challenge was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office and administered by the International City/County Management Association.
Teams were located all across the country. Click here to view an interactive map of all participating teams.
Best Low- and Moderate-Income (LMI) Projects
Grand Prize: The CARE Project (Denver, CO)
CARE was led by the Denver Housing Authority (DHA), which developed, owned, and operated off-site solar arrays to power DHA’s multifamily affordable housing buildings. As the guarantor of the power purchase agreement, DHA was able to ease financiers’ potential concerns about lending to projects comprised of LMI households. DHA worked with Xcel Energy, the local utility, to develop the projects and apply the savings to the energy bills of LMI residents in DHA’s buildings.
The team installed 2 megawatts (MW) of solar that benefited 764 LMI households, saving them approximately 20% on their energy bills, or nearly $3 million in savings. The team also went beyond the requirements of the challenge and provided hands-on training to 51 low-income individuals. Partners included GRID Alternatives, Ensight Energy, and SolarTAC.
Runner-Up: Community Solar for Community Action (Backus, MN)
This team was led by the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance and created a business model that works with local community action agencies to help LMI households. For this project, community action agencies (CAA) helped identify households that can participate in community solar developed under this effort and deliver savings to LMI households. They used the same qualification metrics and delivery mechanisms as the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to provide benefits to those LIHEAP cannot reach due to limitations in funding. This team worked to fill that gap.
The team deployed seven solar facilities—five throughout the Leech Lake Nation in rural Minnesota, one rooftop installation on a community housing organization in Duluth, and one in rural Vermont on the property of a CAA.
Overall, 107 households benefited from the project and, on average, saved 22.3% of their utility bill. Future projects are leveraging a “pay for success” model, where private social impact investors provide the capital to build solar projects and are compensated based on goals the system achieves. Partners included the American Indian Community Housing Organization, Leech Lake Energy Assistance Program, and Southeast Vermont Community Action.
Best LMI Program: The Kerrville Area Solar Partners (Kerrville, TX)
The Kerrville Area Solar Partners were led by the Kerrville Public Utility Board (KPUB), which implemented power purchase agreements for four community solar projects on land leased from local nonprofits. KPUB developed a new rate structure so that it receives 100% of the solar production, then allocates the output to both the LMI residents and nonprofits hosting the systems. The projects provided 3.72 MW of solar and benefited 51% LMI households and 49% nonprofits.
KPUB’s relationship with the anchor nonprofits enabled the utility to secure lower-cost financing and competitive land lease rates. KPUB worked with the solar developer to monetize tax incentives that the utility and the nonprofits could not, providing additional financing for the projects.
The team partnered with the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to use its pool of prequalified LMI households, reducing the soft costs of customer acquisition. The program benefited 302 LMI households and, on average, saved them 14% of their utility bill. Partners also included Schneider Engineering, RES Americas, and NextEra Energy.
Best Nonprofit Project: Making Energy Work for Rural Oregon (Portland, OR)
This team was led by Sustainable Northwest and created a coalition of rural community leaders who are advancing the use of community solar on public facilities. The team leveraged the Oregon Clean Power Cooperative, which helped them raise funding from state residents and local investors, to build a solar installation on a nonprofit site that the cooperative would own. The nonprofit would benefit from reduced energy rates while members of the cooperative would receive a return on investment. This model is the state’s first renewable energy structured cooperative.
The team installed 120 kilowatts (kW) at four nonprofit sites—Hood River Public Works, Hood River Health Department, Lake County Library, and Saving Grace Animal Shelter—saving them an average of 17% on their utility bills. The team plans to deploy 3 MW of community solar by the end of 2030. Partners included a coalition of rural communities in Hood River, Lake, and Douglas Counties.
Best Nonprofit Program: Fellowship Energy (Burlingame, CA)
This team created a financing alternative that leveraged the Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF), a church extension fund, for two solar projects in Richmond, Virginia: a church and a parochial school. Most major Christian denominations have a church extension fund, which raises and manages funds to provide loans to affiliated churches so they can finance building projects.
The church entered into a long-term power purchase agreement with a Virginia-based investor to realize the benefits of the solar investment tax credit. The ECBF was the financial guarantor for the project, supported by the diocese of Virginia. The ECBF also provided the sites with a preapproved, long-term, low-interest loan for the host church to purchase the system, following the 60-month Internal Revenue Service compliance period.
The team installed 350 kW and plans to install just over 3 MW to serve 14 nonprofits and save them, on average, 25% of their electricity bill. The team is planning projects in New Jersey and California and has a longer list of interested parties. Partners included Performance Solar, Episcopal Church Building Fund, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, and Trinity Episcopal School.
Overall, the winning teams will have installed nearly 9.3 MW of solar energy by October 2019, benefitting at least 1,200 households and 18 nonprofit organizations. By 2020, the teams proposed the development of 25.7 MW of solar. On average, the winners were able to save customers nearly 15% to 25% of electricity costs.
SETO also recognizes 12 teams for their innovations in program design and ability to reach new markets:
Local Innovators: Creative and Unique Models
- Local Power (Grass Valley, CA) – This team created a solar thrift store where individuals can donate their used PV system equipment for a tax deduction. That equipment can then be resold for much less than the cost of new system components, reducing the cost for others to go solar.
- SunShares VEIC (Burlington, VT) – This team developed a program where community solar subscriptions are tied to an employer, who passes the benefits on to employees. Employees pay for the energy they use through payroll deductions, and the employer sends those funds to the energy system owner.
Low-Income Empowerment: Helping Communities Most in Need
- Solar Pioneers (Brooklyn, NY) – This team increased local education and improved customer acquisition in two low-income communities, creating a training curriculum and empowering youth with the knowledge to be community ambassadors for solar. They installed 307 kW of solar.
- Solar Destination Ypsilanti (Ypsilanti, MI) – This team deployed over 600 kW of solar, with 44% of it benefiting LMI, and plans to install almost 3 MW by late 2019 in an area where median household income is well below the U.S. average. Local residents were trained to perform solar installation and worked on projects.
Faith-Based Communities: Places of Worship
- Solar Faithful of Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, MI) – This team created a tool kit with instructional materials about solar installation, solar use, and capacities for houses of worship, lowering informational barriers to going solar.
- PowerUp Solar Long Island (Massapequa, NY) – This team removed upfront solar costs and provided low-interest financing and bulk bidding for nonprofits and houses of worship. They acted as solar educators in their communities and deployed nearly 100 kW of solar.
Solar Discovery: Bringing Solar to New Markets
- Solar Working Group of Southwest VA (Norton, VA) – This team comprises nonprofit and community action agencies, colleges, state agencies, and planning district commissions, among others. They identified solar “ambassador” projects and expanded workforce development, education, and outreach, creating solar “champions” for the community. The team plans to install 3 MW by late 2019 in southwest Virginia’s coalfield counties.
- Glass City Community Solar (Toledo, OH) – This team deployed 185 kW using available incentives and sweat equity to serve more than 100 low-income households in a state where solar energy adoption has been slow.
Community Engagement: Volunteer-Driven Efforts
- RE-volv (San Francisco, CA) – This team enables nonprofits to go solar through an affordable lease financed by a crowdfunding-led revolving loan fund. They trained more than 250 “solar ambassadors” and raised $330,000. All the energy from these projects benefit LMI, saving an average of 25% on their utility bills.
- Thrifty Community Solar Barn Raising (Staunton, VA) – Barn raising is a Mennonite tradition, which the team leveraged to develop PV systems. To prove their model’s ability to scale solar installations for rural communities, this team worked with the national network of Mennonite organizations and facilities, and partnered with the state’s largest solar developer. The team installed 172 kW and engaged nearly 200 people.
Innovations in Solarize: Group-Purchasing Campaigns
- Solarize Philly (Philadelphia, PA) – This team created a solar group-buying initiative for homeowners, which included an optional fee to be used to help finance solar energy systems for LMI households. The team plans to install 2.5 MW in 2019, with 20% of the energy going to LMI households, saving customers an average of 83% on their energy bills. They also created a solar training element with a school district.
- Solar Possible (Minneapolis, MN) – This team used third-party financing to improve solar access for local governments and public buildings. It released a multibuilding request for proposal to get better pricing and save government resources in the procurement process.
Structure and Prizes
Teams received seed awards, technical assistance vouchers, or final prizes. Thirty-four teams received seed awards of up to $60,000. Seed awards were disbursed in increments based on completed milestones over the course of the challenge. Vouchers for technical assistance resources and mentoring, worth $10,000 each, were awarded to 110 teams.
Final prizes amounted to $1 million, including a $500,000 grand prize for successfully demonstrating a reproducible and scalable model for low-income solar.
Consultants and coaches were compensated based on the extent to which the teams used their services.
The competitors’ projects and programs were required to directly benefit:
- LMI households, with at least 20% of the energy and benefits assigned to LMI households; or
- Nonprofit organizations; state, local, or tribal governments; or community service organizations, with at least 60% of the energy and benefits assigned to one of these types of entities.
Photovoltaic system projects were required to aggregate between 25 and 5,000 kW. A single entity could not be assigned more than 1,000 kW from a single solar energy system.
While 20% LMI customers was the minimum, teams with over 50% LMI customers were eligible to receive a bonus cash prize. Nine teams out of 34 eligible received a bonus prize, totaling $78,000.
- Register for the webinar featuring the authors of a report by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on June 12, 2019, 1:00-2:00 p.m. EDT.
- Download the NREL report “Up to the Challenge: Communities Deploy Solar in Underserved Markets.”
- Download the Solar in Your Community Challenge fact sheet.