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Kids ask their parents for many things: sugary snacks, the latest iPhone—but Anya Schoolman’s son asked for something that would ignite a national movement: “Mom, can we go solar?"
Solar United Neighbors, an organization representing solar homeowners, community-based solar projects, and clean energy, was founded by Schoolman in Washington, D.C., in 2007. Her son Walter and his friend Diego were just 12 years old when they watched Al Gore’s documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth", but they were moved to make a difference for the environment. Through her research, Schoolman realized that instead of converting just their home for solar power, which was a complicated and expensive process, maybe it would be easier if she and her neighbors banned together. So Walter and Diego walked up and down their neighborhood of Mount Pleasant in D.C., recruiting 45 homes to join a “solar co-op.” Together the neighbors learned about the technology—and challenges—behind installing solar panels.
Soon, Schoolman began getting calls from all across the greater D.C. area, and eventually the country, from people who wanted to replicate their model. Today, Solar United Neighbors (SUN) has surpassed 2,700 in solar panel installations for homes and a small number of businesses, with a presence in eight different states including Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.
"I never would have imagined ten years ago, when my son suggested we go solar, that this would be the outcome. But at the same time, it makes perfect sense,” says Schoolman. “Our energy system is undergoing a fundamental transition and solar homeowners are at the forefront.” Walter, now about to graduate from college, has seen the effects of his childhood determination take shape: “It has been amazing to watch what has grown from a small group of neighbors meeting at my house to talk about going solar into a national organization with tens of thousands of supporters,” he says.
Going solar benefits our environment, our health, and our economy, not to mention our wallets. “Air pollutants [from power plant emissions] like nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), and fine particulate matter (PM) can damage the respiratory system and contribute to many other health complications,” says Ben Delman, the Communications Director of SUN. Greenhouse gas emissions are also of course a huge contributor to climate change. In addition to allowing energy-independence, installing solar panels gives homeowners state and federal incentives, including a 30% federal tax investment credit. It has a positive impact on the job market, too: in a growing industry, SUN alone is responsible for creating 572 jobs in the field, including construction workers, roofers, and steel manufacturers.
SUN is especially unique in that it helps homeowners throughout the entire installation process, from recruiting co-op members, to assessing your roof and finding the right installers. They also work to improve the conversation around solar energy. “The issue is that utility sees rooftop solar as a threat,” says Delman. “It’s only fair that you’re getting compensated for the electricity that you’re giving back to your neighbors or wider electric grids,” he says of the effort by public service commissions in several states to get lawmakers to lower the compensation rate for solar homeowners. (You can read about the debates surrounding net metering, the policy that allows solar homeowners to be compensated for their excess energy output, here.)
To raise awareness, SUN holds statewide conventions about clean energy; through their website they give people tools to support clean energy campaigns across the nation, and learn about community-based solar projects where anyone can benefit, not just homeowners. Their initiatives are also being applied to renewable energy for vehicles, and in Maryland they started the first “solar storage co-op,” a battery backup for a solar-powered system. Delman says soon, they plan to be on rooftops all across the nation.
Thinking about going solar? Here’s what you need to know:
Solar panels require enough space so that the system is not interrupted by chimneys and other roof accoutrement. A south-facing roof is ideal. The solar units last around 25 years, so it’s best if your roof won’t need a replacement in the meantime. (In turn, the panels protect your roof from sun and weather damage!)
What It Costs
Start-up costs are around $15,000. But part of Solar United’s mission is to benefit people of all income brackets. “We’ve pushed for equity in the solar market,” Delman tells us. Last summer they passed a program called Solar For All to help offset electricity costs for 100,000 lower-income families in D.C.
No Roof? No Problem
Even if you’re a renter or don’t have the roof requirements for a solar panel, you can still help the cause by supporting an off-site solar energy source, and you can count the electricity that’s produced for that system against your electric bill. You can also help by urging your state legislators to invest in community solar projects, or by checking out SUN’s many volunteer opportunities.
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