3.52 kW rooftop solar system installed by the Sunlight Solar PDX team at the Chi family’s home in SE Portland
It’s quiet in the sun-dappled backyard of the Chi family’s SE Portland home. Inside a faint din can be heard, but on the sun-scorched grass, looking up at the home’s roof, things are peaceful. Chi, who gleefully says his is the largest yard in his neighborhood, is looking at an array of newly installed Q-Cells solar panels that now adorn his steep roof. Pride and curiosity fill his eyes, and that alone should be enough satisfaction for the three parties that helped make it happen. Chi was able to install solar on his home’s roof thanks to the partnership of Portland nonprofits Proud Ground and Solar for All, and our business, Sunlight Solar.
Proud Ground and Solar for All are both Portland nonprofits that have been collaborating for five years to provide lower- and moderate-income families with affordable housing and solar, respectively. Proud Ground has been around for over 20 years, and is the largest community land trust in the Pacific Northwest. Solar for All is a newer breed of non-profit, having completed its first project in 2015.
Run by Greg Harr, Solar for All helps find the upfront capital that makes installing solar so restrictive for many homeowners. Through his work, Harr has been able to drastically and sustainably help Proud Ground’s homeowners manage their energy-associated costs and dive into the wonderful world of green energy. As of today, Harr has helped install 77 kilowatts of solar around Oregon and Washington, resulting in over three million kilowatt-hours generated. Chi’s install, which is part of five being completed through Proud Ground and Solar for All this year, adds to that growing rate of energy production. Sunlight Solar is working to install all five of this year’s homes, and was the first solar company Harr worked with when he started in 2015.
“We’ve been partnering with Sunlight Solar since the beginning. We’ve really appreciated working with them, honestly, I’m just an engineer trying to put solar on homes, and every project feels like I learn something new,” Harr said.
“Many of our clients are first time homeowners as well, which means they have a lot of questions. Sunlight Solar has been great at always answering those questions, and every time we’ve worked with them, the install has gone better than the last one.” – Greg Harr
Solar for All Gets it’s Start:
Harr jumped into the solar world out of curiosity at first. Harr and his wife, Kim, installed solar on their home in Cedar Hills, Oregon. The house was perfect for the technology, with a giant, south facing roof and no shade. The couple utilized benefits from the Solarize Northwest campaign, and installed a respectable 6.35kW at first. However, as the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO) incentives ramped up and the benefits of Residential Energy Tax Credits (RETC) became apparent, the couple was soon hoping to install more.
“At the time, ETO didn’t really have a cap on how many dollars you could get, so if you could fit more kilowatts on your roof, you could make more money. Based on the fact that Kim and I both are engineers, gainfully employed with no kids, the question soon shifted from what can we afford to what can we fit?” Harr said. “The incentives were generous, and at the time I was amazed by the savings. But it felt a little reverse Robin Hood. It was a great benefit, both environmentally and financially, but it wasn’t a benefit we needed necessarily. There was still so much upfront capital we needed to provide, and if you don’t have that capital you don’t get to access the funds ETO had for solar.”
Harr decided to look into where the money came from to fund ETO’s generous incentives, learning for the first time about Oregon’s public purpose charge, a rate tacked onto Oregonian’s energy bills to help fund energy conservation and renewable projects. Wanting to give back after benefiting from the state incentives, Harr started working with Willamette West and Washington County Habitat for Humanity to figure out how he could put solar on Habitat for Humanity’s homes. After running the numbers over and over again, he kept finding short falls in the funding, despite generous tax credits.
“So I said well, if I can incorporate then I’ll raise the money and bring the difference to the table,” Harr said.
He started that process in 2012, and after two years and a heap of complications in getting 501c3 status, Harr was finally ready for his first install. In 2015, he installed a 3.6kW project in Medford, utilizing the help of Sunlight Solar, which donated all of the incurred travel costs driving up from our office in Bend, OR for the install. Harr was inspired to continue his work especially after looking at data detailing the breakdown of utility bill costs by income strata. As homeowners earn more money, their energy use often surges as well, but despite that these higher-income people pay a much lower percentage of their income than low to moderate income people. Meaning energy bills are just easier to handle if you’re making more money, but can become a significant chunk of monthly budgeting for LMI families.
“I see reducing utility bills as a big driver for making it more possible for these families to stay in their home,” Harr said.
Proud Ground’s Pivotal Part:
Soon after his first install, Harr found Proud Ground’s people and a new collaboration flourished. Since they began collaborating, the two non-profits have put solar on 18 houses, with the majority being in Multnomah county. The transformative benefits of gaining access to renewable solar energy is hard to overstate, and by partnering with Proud Ground, Solar for All has continued to help address generational poverty, stymied the negative effects of gentrification and helped families cut their carbon footprint. The organizations have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship and both see Sunlight Solar as an integral part of their process.
“Greg is one of Proud Ground’s long-term partners and we really value that partnership because, at the end of the day, his mission is aligned with our mission. At the same time, we’re both working separately in our own area of expertise. By making housing affordable, and solar panels affordable, we can provide both benefits. And what we love working with Sunlight Solar is that the process is so turnkey, and there is an established trust.”
Jackie Keogh, Deputy Director of Proud Ground, said.
Keogh and her organization were internally and externally motivated to continue working alongside Harr and Solar for All. Proud Ground is intensely driven to find financially sustainable housing situations for the people they help. Their clients choose when and if to sell, and have voting powers within their board of directors. Their community is a part of the organization’s decision making in a unique way, and Proud Ground is always looking toward long-term benefits which solar energy represents well. Proud Ground runs all sorts of post-purchase educational opportunities and support programs, but they see solar as the peak of what they can provide.
“I think solar panels are such a concrete investment in someone’s home,” Keogh said. “It’s not just helping them save money, but so much more. Our portfolio has always prioritized green technology, and we practice environmental standards from the paint on the house to low-flow water systems to energy efficient appliances. Whenever we can, we invest in that, and solar is the end all, be all of what we can invest in.” – Jackie Keogh
Melissa Ulrich, Proud Ground’s Interim Development Director, was able to join Sunlight Solar’s team during the install at Chi’s house. She had a chance, masked up and socially distant, to talk with Chi and his family, explore their backyard and burgeoning garden, and appreciate the work this collaboration is doing firsthand.
“The family was great,” said Proud Ground’s Interim Development Director Melissa Ulrich.
“Seeing Chi’s passion for the solar panels, his interest in how they work, it was just radiating out of him. This is clearly a great opportunity for them, you can tell they’re building their dream home.” – Melissa Ulrich
Solar Struggles with Bureaucracy:
After 2015, things were rosy as the two non-profits continued to work together, until the generous tax credits that initially got Harr’s mind whirring began to fall off. As politics played its role and the solar outlook in Oregon began to shift, Harr adapted as well, evolving Solar for All with the times to best serve his people. Today, Harr’s best allies are the Solar Within Reach program and Oregon Department of Energy’s (ODOE) solar rebates. These new incentives have been clunkier and work less well with Solar for All’s mission, but Harr is dedicated to ensuring they work to their best potential. As an example, Harr mentions the five houses (including Chi’s) he’s working on with Proud Ground and Sunlight Solar this year. He says each home owner should have qualified for Solar Within Reach, but since they’re first time homeowners and have lived in their homes for a few years already and their incomes have adjusted, none will qualify for Solar Within Reach. So the duo of non-profits is using ODOE’s solar rebates instead.
“The Solar Within Reach program in Oregon is a good new step for sure,” Harr said.
“When it works, it drastically reduces the amount of money Solar for All has to bring to the table. Because it is such a large incentive, Solar Within Reach will really drive us to target homeowners in the lowest income brackets.” – Greg Harr
As with anything, it doesn’t always work well though. In one horror story of financing, Harr spoke about four homes he worked on in Clark County, Washington in 2019. Incentives there would allow utility companies to track kWh’s returned to the grid and solar system owners could get paid for that. Harr planned to use that for part of the financing, with homeowners signing a contract saying they’ll benefit from lower utility bills and a free solar array while Solar for All could take the money generated by selling excess power to fund more projects down the line.
“We wanted to get this virtuous cycle going on, so we went through and installed on the four homes,” Harr said. “But after everything was done, the state of Washington refused our incentive agreements.”
Apparently, written in the fine print of the legislation was a restriction stating in order to qualify, homeowners had to pay for the panels and own the home. After Solar for All’s work, the homeowners did own the panels, but since they didn’t pay for them, the ownership was moot.
“That was very disappointing, to say the least,” Harr said. “It made me realize that the rebate system has changed a lot, and my general take away is that government programs are not designed for non-profits to help provide solar to lower income individuals.”
The (Solar) Fruits of Our Labor:
At the end of the day though, both Proud Ground and Solar for All are committed to keeping the pride and curiosity shining in eyes of people like Chi. Harr has seen firsthand how powerful these projects can be, affecting far more than a person’s financial situation. He thinks solar can wholly improve a person’s quality of life, connection to their neighborhood and environmental outlook. Harr hopes to continue Solar for All’s work, and dreams of expanding the scope of their programs to include job training as well. Similar non-profits, such as Grid Alternatives and other, separate Solar for All groups in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, offer job training as they install on people’s houses. This further educates the homeowners on what is going on inside the systems, as well as opens up potential job opportunities and sustainable income sources to families looking for better work. He thinks back to some of the most impactful installations he’s completed in the past five years, and is reminded of the first install he did with Sunlight Solar in Medford.
“It gets f’ing hot there in the summer time, and I remember a news crew coming out to report about what we were doing. We were working on the second house, and they interviewed a woman who lived in the house we’d just finished, this stay at home mother of five living in a small Habitat for Humanity home,” Harr reminisced. “She said she’d lived in Medford her whole life, and today was the first day she’d ever turned on her air conditioning.”
It drives home the point that solar energy is much more powerful than the watts it produces. Back at the Chi house, modules are now shining bright in the setting sun. Sunlight Solar’s team is wrapping up the installation process, and as things come together, Chi’s wife is happy to share the bounty of their garden: a bulging bag of sweet onions. When one eats, all eat.