Solar Today Winter 2016-17 : Page 30
A Community Approach to Solar 31-year-old Dan Conant grew up in Jefferson County, near the colonial-era settlement of Shep-herdstown on the Potomac River in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. While earning a master’s degree in energy policy from Johns Hopkins University in nearby Baltimore, where he was active in political organizing, Conant helped start a series of success-ful community solar organizations. He moved to Vermont in 2011 and became the first employee at SunCommon, a residential solar installation busi-ness which grew to become that state’s largest by focusing on neighborhood-and community-based projects. In 2013 Conant decided to take his community organizing skills, project financing expertise, and passion for solar energy back to his home town and state. He soon became a prominent solar advocate in West Virginia, promoting the statewide use of renewable energy. In a March 2016 editorial in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Conant wrote: “We should be exporting renewable energy. We should be firing up shuttered mills to make solar racking and wind turbines. We should be fanning out to every hill and hollow to build a 21st century energy system.” In his campaign to accomplish this ambitious goal, Conant believes that churches, libraries, and other nonprofit and civic organizations can play a central role. “They have the most to gain from solar electricity,” he says, because lowering electricity costs frees up precious funds to pursue their mis-sion. In addition, a solar installation on a building frequented by members of the community sets and example and offers educational opportunities to the public. “If the local church is adopting solar,” goes this line of thinking, “then maybe renewable energy is not as bad for West Virginia as the politicians keep telling us it is.” As Conant pursued his vision, he tackled the flip side of the coin: nonprofits and municipalities face even higher barriers to going solar in West Virginia than homeowners do. Nonprofits cannot take advan-tage of federal tax credits and government entities cannot borrow, In addition, commercial buildings do not receive the same level of reimbursement from West Virginia utilities through net metering as home-owners currently do. In his dogged quest to find a viable path for-ward, Conant came across Maryland-based Mosaic Power. Founded in 2012, Mosaic Power pays willing homeowners to hook up their electric water heat-ers to Mosaic’s remote monitors, creating a smart grid. Mosaic turns the water heaters off and on for brief periods in response to electricity demand on the mid-Atlantic power grid. PJM, the grid opera-tor, pays Mosaic for its help in regulating the flow of electricity to stabilize the power system. In turn, 30 WINTER 2016-2017 SOLAR TODAY Glen Wilson and two other Coalﬁeld Development Corporation trainees install mounts for a rooftop solar installation in Wayne, WV. Mosaic pays homeowners $100 per year for use of the water heaters. By partnering with Mosaic Power, Conant believed he could devise a creative way to pay for solar installations on nonprofit organization build-ings. A church or library would invite its members and supporters to put their home water heaters on the Mosaic Power remote system—at no cost to them—and then contribute their $100 fee to fund a solar power system on the organization’s building. If enough people signed up, the nonprofit would get a solar system at no cost to the organization. Convinced that his crowdfunding tweak of the Mosaic Power program could be the missing piece in his solar financing toolkit, Conant created Solar Holler in 2013. the solar panels. Buoyed by the success of this pilot project, Conant set out on his next community-funded solar project in nearby Harpers Ferry. In February 2015, thanks to 50 local families who signed up for Solar Holler’s program with Mosaic Power, the Bolivar-Harpers Ferry Public Library had a 12-panel, 3-kilo-watt system on its roof. Word of these solar projects spread fast, and soon Solar Holler was receiving inquiries from nonprof-its and civic organizations across the state. Conant set his sights on creating at least one community-supported solar project in each of West Virginia’s 55 counties within five years. Now Conant had a new challenge: how to meet the impending demand for trained solar installers. “I always knew that if we were going to succeed at creating a renewable energy industry in West Virginia, we would need to develop both a market demand and a labor force to meet that demand,” said Conant. “I now happily found myself facing the second part of that equation.” What Conant did not yet know was that the solu-tion to this need would come by way of the very same Presbyterian Church where his solar financing breakthrough took place. Putting it to the Test The historic Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church became the trial run for Conant’s innovation. The church had been trying to finance a solar system for several years, but kept running into the same obstacles Conant was bumping up against. After a series of meetings with Conant and a group from the congregation led by Than Hitt, a church member spearheading the solar drive, the decision was made to give this new funding idea a go. Within three months, 78 church members had signed up for the program. The church contracted with Mountain View Solar, a licensed solar installer in nearby Berkeley Springs, and in August, 2014, a 60-panel, 16.2-kilowatt system went live. About 40 percent of the church’s electricity now comes from A Team is Born 29-year-old Brandon Dennison grew up in Hun-tington, the state’s second largest city, on its western border with Ohio. After graduating from high school he moved across state to Shepherdstown where he received a B.A. in history from Shepherd University in Copyright © 2014 American Solar Energy Society. All rights reserved.