Solar in the City: The Challenges of Bringing Clean Power to a Dorchester Neighborhood
October 12, 2021
The Better Buildings Act, now making its way through the Massachusetts legislature, is a monumental step toward curbing fossil fuel use by larger commercial and public buildings. Yet even as we focus on these major carbon polluters, we cannot lose sight of the need to bring clean energy solutions to residential communities, particularly those that have been unable to tap the solar energy that shines on their rooftops.
In recent years, more than 100,000 solar arrays have been installed on Massachusetts homes and businesses, but the Commonwealth’s lower-income communities have experienced little of that growth. In some of those communities, local activists are teaming up with enlightened entrepreneurs to close the solar power gap.
When Boston-based Resonant Energy was looking for low-income homeowners to join its Solar Access Program, it’s no surprise that Elnora Thompson stepped up. For decades, she has dedicated herself to strengthening community ties and healing the environment in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, a few blocks from Codman Square. First, she spearheaded community gardening; then she turned to solar power.
Shortly after moving to her current home in 1990, Thompson learned about a makeshift community garden where she could plant some vegetables. “There were ten guys here at the time, and I was the only woman,” she recalls as we sit in the morning shade beneath a pergola surrounded by tight rows of beans, greens, sunflowers, and staked tomato plants. “They appointed me the coordinator, so I have been doing it ever since.”
About a decade ago, when a condo complex was proposed for the garden site, Thompson was on the front lines rallying opposition to the project. “We got Codman Square Health Center, ABCD [Action Plan for Boston Community Development], all the grocery stores, and everybody with a nutritional link to come on board with us.” After a multi-year struggle, the community gardeners won title to the property from the City of Boston for a dollar and registered the Nightingale Community Garden as a nonprofit organization. Today, the garden has 134 plots and yields 25,000 pounds of fresh produce annually.
Thompson recalls her first encounter with Resonant Energy a few years ago. “A young lady showed up at my house, and I was in my front yard working. She said, ‘We have this program,’ and she started explaining it to me. I said, ‘I run a community meeting over at Codman Square Library and we’re meeting tonight. Why don’t you come over and present?’”
At the meeting, Resonant Energy’s field representative described the company’s offering. In exchange for leasing out roof space to Resonant for a solar array, homeowners would receive twenty percent of the sun-generated power free of charge. The estimated savings, deducted from their monthly electricity bills, would amount to roughly $500 per year, and after ten years, the homeowners would have the option to buy the solar arrays outright at a deeply discounted price.
Nine people expressed initial interest, but progress was slow. Thompson worked hard at reining in her neighbors’ impatience with the many months it took to line up financing for their installations and a contractor to install the solar arrays. After multiple neighborhood meetings and working sessions with Resonant staff around her kitchen table, Thompson and five of her Dorchester neighbors now have solar power on their property. Her own photovoltaic (PV) array was activated on August 24.
One of the barriers to low-income solar access is the cost of buying and installing a rooftop PV array, averaging more than $15,000 in Massachusetts. Federal and state investment tax credits on renewable energy—a real boon to solar buyers with sufficient taxable income—are of little use to low-income households. A low FICO credit score can pose other obstacles: it may bar homeowners of modest means from taking out a loan for the purchase of a PV array, prevent them from leasing solar equipment, and dim their prospects of signing a power purchase agreement that would let them buy electricity from a company that has installed its own solar panels on their property. Resonant’s Solar Access Program surmounts all those hurdles, offering solar power at no upfront cost and without any ongoing financial obligations.
Resonant Energy, as a certified B Corporation, is legally bound to conduct business in a socially and environmentally responsible way. The company’s mission, as co-founder and co-CEO Ben Underwood describes it, is “to fundamentally change how the profits of the solar industry are distributed and whom they benefit.” Resonant, a worker-owned company, has installed four megawatts of solar power on individual homes, multi-family affordable housing, and houses of worship across Massachusetts, plus a few in New York State. That’s more than the electricity needed for 650 average American homes.
Financing for Elnora Thompson’s roof and several other Resonant Energy projects comes from Sunwealth, a Cambridge-based investment firm whose mission aligns with Resonant’s goal of advancing solar access and inclusion. Jess Brooks, chief development officer at Sunwealth, describes the challenge her firm addresses: “On the investor’s side, how do you connect all the people who care about addressing climate change, particularly care about building strong and more vibrant regional solar economics, want to be invested in local solar projects supporting local businesses, and care about a more equitable clean energy future?”
In expanding the reach of solar power to households and communities that mainstream lenders steer clear of, Brooks emphasizes that Sunwealth operates within existing capital markets. “Sunwealth has intentionally chosen to develop in a way where we are delivering returns to investors. We are not requiring a grant subsidy to do the work.” In some older homes, though, antiquated wiring and aging roofs have to be replaced before solar can be safely installed. Ben Underwood says that Resonant has raised extra funds from philanthropic sources to cover those expenses.
Sunwealth’s CEO Jon Abe acknowledges that, while many of the installations it finances serve low-income households, it’s often cheaper to install solar systems in suburban and rural areas than in crowded cities with older buildings and electric distribution networks that strain under the added load of solar power. That’s part of what makes Sunwealth’s collaboration with Resonant Energy so impressive. Neither firm is charting the most effortless path to a clean energy future; both are dedicated to balancing profits and environmental gains with a commitment to leveling the solar power playing field for underserved communities.
Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, the City of Boston’s chief environmental officer, gave the keynote last month at a backyard celebration of Resonant Energy’s first half-decade. “I’m glad to be here, where a few crazy people said, ‘We’re going to try something different, we’re going to put ourselves out there,’” she said. “I hope it will make all of us walk away from here asking, ‘What is the next courageous, community-driven, creative solution that we are going to go for?’ Because time is running out and the status quo certainly isn’t working.”
About the Author
Philip Warburg is a Senior Fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.