Energy access is a global issue, and funding isn’t always found where it’s needed most. That’s why many in the solar industry choose to blaze their own paths, setting up nonprofit organizations to bring PV to communities across the world that could use the help.
Here’s a look at three success stories in philanthropic efforts: Twende Solar, the Honnold Foundation and Solar Crowdsource. Even a seemingly insignificant donation from one company and one person can make a big difference to many currently living in an unelectrified environment.
‘Let’s go’ solar
When Oregon solar installer Elemental Energy’s founder John Grieser traveled to rural Tanzania for college credit ten years ago, he found that residents didn’t have consistent access to electricity. Recognizing that solar could provide energy where the African country’s electrical grid didn’t reach, Grieser and other Elemental Energy employees founded Twende Solar, a standalone nonprofit focused on both international and domestic philanthropic solar development.
Twende, which means ‘let’s go’ in Swahili, was founded on the principle that it’s not necessary to wait for government assistance — that private industry members can and should still work to provide energy access to those in need.
“For a community living in rural Peru, you can put a system on that land, and in a couple of days they can have light in their home, a clean-cooking stove and an opportunity for students to study at night,” said Marissa Johnson, executive director of Twende Solar.
The organization tries to take on all projects brought to them from nonprofits and low-income communities in need, with a focus on empowering women, children and healthcare.
Internationally, Twende has developed projects like a 6.6-kW solar + storage system at a Guatemalan school, which allowed the school to start a computer program. In its own backyard, Twende completed a 100-kW array at homeless shelter Portland Rescue Mission. In its fifth year, Twende Solar has installed a total of 163.4 kW for communities in need, with the Portland project being its largest.
“It becomes an issue of justice locally,” Johnson said. “I think the whole nation is having a reckoning this year with the amount of work here locally in inequity and justice in communities. Even prior to that, we recognized there’s work that needs to be done at home.”
Twende’s projects are funded through a combination of donations, grant funding, corporate sponsorships and financial partners who give a percentage of their sales toward these PV systems, and the donations are tax deductible.
While the cash funding is necessary, Twende also relies on donations of solar technology and time. System designs are handled by volunteers, and supplier partnerships provide racking and solar panels.
“That is something that has kind of just filled me with joy since I started this job two years ago,” Johnson said. “I think this reflects the fact that this industry in particular is for people who are doing this not just for a paycheck. It’s for people who are invested in seeing a real substantive difference.”
Twende doesn’t fully fund the solar projects and requires some buy-in by the organizations receiving the systems, but through cost-savings, the arrays will pay for themselves quickly.
The organization has a 388-kW pipeline of projects, with 383 kW slated for the Pacific Northwest. The organization is exploring how more nonprofits can develop community solar projects in Oregon. At an institutional level, Twende has been reflecting during the pandemic on how to make its work more equitable and inclusive, “amplifying the great work that’s already happening, instead of us coming in and trying to solve problems for them,” Johnson said.
Expanding access to solar
Alex Honnold was the subject of the 2018 documentary “Free Solo,” following his exploits as a rock climber, scaling mountains untethered. But six years prior to captivating audiences with his daring climbs, he started a donor-advised fund and began donating one-third of his income to installing solar for people who lacked energy access — while he was still living in an Econoline van.
“His focus, in the beginning, was on solar because he felt like it was a really simple, transparent way to have an immediate positive impact on people’s lives and it’s something that scales well globally,” said Dory Trimble, executive director, Honnold Foundation.
Since its start, the Honnold Foundation has grown into a 501(c)(3) with four full-time staff members. Its work focuses on bringing solar to nonprofits and provides grant funding and project management support for them globally.
“Our mission is really focused on this balance point between social and economic equity and solar energy access,” Trimble said.
The funding mechanisms come from the foundation’s “Core” and “Community” funds. Core funding comes from $100,000 annual grants given to nonprofit organizations worldwide that are heavily involved in their communities and are installing solar. An example is KOPPESDA, a grantee based in Sumba Island, Indonesia, that lets residents pay for solar power with non-cash payments, which Trimble said are often items like virgin coconut oil or woven palm baskets.
“They used to let folks pay with chickens, but the chickens kept escaping,” she said.
The foundation recently started the Community Fund, which is U.S.-focused and meant for BIPOC-led nonprofits in pollution-heavy regions. Sunrun has partnered on the initiative, and the foundation is planning to bring solar to nonprofits in Memphis, Tennessee; Washington, D.C.; and New York City.
“The idea is, basically, we’re reducing carbon output, we’re increasing solar adoption and we’re keeping money in the pockets of nonprofits that really need it to provide essential services in their communities,” Trimble said.
The Honnold Foundation is currently backing a microgrid in Puerto Rico that will support 17 businesses with battery backup that can keep the power running for 10 days in the case of a grid outage. The foundation relies on fundraising to provide grants, some of which comes from Honnold himself, and is currently able to support solar development for 18 organizations worldwide.
“People hear ‘foundation’ and they think ‘endowment,’ but we don’t have an endowment and we never will,” Trimble said. “We think climate change is an urgent problem, and it doesn’t really matter if we have a bunch of money 30 years from now if the world’s on fire. It’s our goal to bring in as much money as we can and give it away to worthy partners.”
Picking up the state’s slack
Don Moreland founded Solar Crowdsource in 2015 in reaction to Georgia’s rooftop and community solar policies. He observed community-based Solarize campaigns taking place out west that didn’t rely on Department of Energy grant funding and wanted to start something similar in his state.
“There was just a need for that in Georgia, because if we had net metering and community solar and state tax credits and an RPS and the RECs actually had value, then we might not have needed a Solarize program,” Moreland said. “This was an opportunity to provide another resource in the community and in the industry to do more volume and to provide more discounts and provide a forum where you can educate the public about the benefits of solar.”
Moreland found that many communities don’t have the resources to start a Solarize campaign, so Solar Crowdsource was started to provide the technologies and services needed to get these programs started. Solar Crowdsource campaigns start by forming coalitions with nonprofits in a community. Then a steering committee is developed to find funding.
The campaign runs for four to six months, and in that time, Solar Crowdsource runs public outreach and education and fields competitive bids for the job. After the RFP process, the contractor is selected through a vote by committee members. Participating residents get group pricing discounts and a free system evaluation.
“I think there was room in the market for a trusted third party that could engage with a community and go through the request for proposals process and have the credibility to select a contractor,” he said.
Solar Crowdsource has organized 12 campaigns in Georgia, resulting in 650 solar and storage installations, or 4.6 MW of solar capacity and 1.9 MWh of energy storage. With each campaign, Solar Crowdsource tries to donate a solar system to a nonprofit in the selected community. Contractors applying for the Solarize campaign disclose how much of their revenue will go toward the donated system. The amount they’re willing to donate definitely factors into contractor selection, Moreland said.
“The contractor, their revenue with these programs can be in the millions of dollars. A percentage of that is small in comparison,” Moreland said.
A recently donated system was for the MLK Day Project in Solar Crowdsource’s Solarize Decatur-Dekalb campaign. The MLK Day Project serves senior citizens living in a gentrifying neighborhood on a fixed income. The addition of the solar system is reducing their energy bills.
Philanthropy takes many forms, and while any addition of solar is valuable, it can have more immediate impacts for certain populations that cannot afford it.