Podcast #017: Anya Schoolman and Solar United Neighbors: Can we change the future of energy at the community level?

If you think that the clean energy transition is all about giant utilities and national-level policy, this podcast will make you think again. In fact, the most inspiring stories are taking place one house and one neighborhood at a time.

Freeing Energy Podcast Host Sam Easterby talks with Anya Schoolman, the founder and Executive Director of Solar United Neighbors.  Listen and learn about SUN programs centered on energy rights, how those rights can be leveraged to save money, support clean energy, and fundamentally change our energy system at the community level.

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Anya Schoolman and Solar United Neighbors: Can we change the future of energy at the community level?

Freeing Energy Podcast Host Sam Easterby talks with Anya Schoolman, the founder and Executive Director of Solar United Neighbors.  Listen and learn about SUN programs centered on energy rights, how those rights can be leveraged to save money, support clean energy, and fundamentally change our energy system at the community level.

Additional information

  • Solar United Neighbors is a national organization dedicated to representing the needs and interests of solar owners and supporters. Check out their website here: https://www.solarunitedneighbors.org
  • The National Solar Tour is the largest grassroots renewable energy event in the nation and takes place October 5&6, 2019,
    https://www.nationalsolartour.org  (Sponsored by SUN and the American Solar Energy Society)
  • A site for postcard campaigns to elected officials, sponsored by SUN. You can send a message and a photo of your solar project to state and federal elected officials: https://www.ilovemy.solar.
     

Transcript

Sam Easterby:

Hello, Freeing Energy friends. I’m Sam Easterby, and I’ll be your host today for a very special episode. My guest is Anya Schoolman. Anya is the founder and executive director of Solar United Neighbors. And in that role, she is at the very heart of the solar advocacy movement in the United States. Neighborhood by neighborhood and community by community. Anya’s tireless work in the greater DC area to promote solar, garnered her the White House Award for champions of change in 2014. And more recently, Anya and her now national organization, Solar United Neighbors have been helping people fight for their energy rights nationwide. Anya, welcome to the Freeing Energy Podcast.

Anya Schoolman:

Thanks. I’m excited to be here with you.

Sam Easterby:

This journey started for you back in 2007, you were in the greater DC area. Your son Walter and a friend Diego wanted to put in some solar cells at home. And that sounds like one of those projects that really could go sideways pretty fast. Would you tell us a little bit about those first steps in helping Walter, what you learned and how that has shaped your work today?

Anya Schoolman:

So, it really started out kind of innocently. Walter and Diego had gone to see the movie Inconvenient Truth, and they came back being cynical 12 year olds, they were saying, “We can’t wait for the government. The government’s never going to solve our problems. We need to do something today. Let’s go solar.”

Anya Schoolman:

We thought about looking into it, and we actually called 20 installers. And at that time there was no installers at all based in Washington D.C. They were only in the suburbs and Maryland, and none of them would come into the city.

Anya Schoolman:

We finally got a couple to come after pleading, and the estimate they gave us was a really large number. It was $40,000 or something. That was pretty much in my mind, the end of the project. But I said to the guys, “Look, this is too much work and too expensive to do on our own. What have we got the whole neighborhood together? We could bring down the price.”

Anya Schoolman:

I thought they would just punt, but they didn’t. They created the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative, and they created this little form and they started carrying around door to door in our neighborhood.

Anya Schoolman:

And we live in a very diverse, integrated neighborhood in Washington D.C. with row houses. And most of the houses are two flights of steps up from the sidewalk to get to their front door. So we started to go to the first house, and I was helping. And by the time we were at the third house, I was tired out. If we didn’t have two teenage boys in charge of the project, I don’t think we would have ever made it.

Anya Schoolman:

So they brought them around door to door, and by two weeks we had 50 houses signed up to join the project. And then it was really neighbors working with neighbors. We kept convening in my living room and other people’s living rooms, people hosted parties, people chipped in with different expertise. Some lawyers volunteered, some installers volunteered. We got involved with legislation at D.C. to help fix what was wrong with our solar market. And two years later, we took 45 houses in our neighborhood solar altogether as a group. And that was really the thing that started this whole movement that we’re in the middle of right now.

Sam Easterby:

That really is an amazing story that it started with two youngsters and it’s catapulted into a nationwide organization now. And for that work, do I understand that the White House presented you with a Champions of Change award in 2014?

Anya Schoolman:

Yeah, it was really such an honor. The other people being given the award were also just amazing people. So it was incredible to meet the whole network from across the country. And it’s really helped us take the work to the next level, getting that recognition. It’s helped us start to raise money, and start to professionalize, and start to scale. So now we’ve gone from being a neighborhood organization, to a citywide, to a regional. And now we’re national. We have on the ground programs in 12 states, but we have members and activities in all 50 states.

Sam Easterby:

Oh, that’s amazing. Would you say that that award impacted your work? And if it did, how did it impact you?

Anya Schoolman:

It was really just the recognition, the ability to raise money, and the ability to be validated so that people understood that it wasn’t just some crazy neighbors. It was actually some people who had learned a lot and pretty serious. Part of the reason we got that award was for work we’d done to introduce the idea of community solar and low income solar into D.C. Because our model has always been that solar should be affordable and accessible to everyone, and we’ve never strayed from that idea that it’s really the whole community has to benefit.

Sam Easterby:

Did Walter and Diego get to go up and receive part of the award with you?

Anya Schoolman:

They were both in college by then and out of town. So if they were in town, I would have definitely dragged them along.

Sam Easterby:

That’s fun. That’s fun. Well a lot of us, especially at the Freeing Energy Project, we spend a good bit of time thinking about the technology side of local energy, of renewable energy, of solar energy. And we’ve seen so many amazing changes that have occurred in the business. It really is hard to imagine that people are skeptical today about shifting to solar or renewable energy, but it seems to really come down to a people equation at the end of the day, and people at the local level focusing on that change. Is that your experience?

Anya Schoolman:

Yeah, absolutely. I think when we get to the local level in almost any community, it could be a conservative community, progressive, rural, urban, people get it immediately. People get how they could save money and build their own power and create local jobs, and people get behind it. I think where we get into trouble is when it gets up into the political level and it gets caught into these partisan debates. But at the local level, people are just ready for it and they just want it to be easier to do.

Sam Easterby:

Given that, tell us a little bit about Solar United neighbors and some of the programs. For example, I’ve looked at a one of the year programs, it’s the solar co-op model. Tell us a little bit about your programs and some of the things that you are doing.

Anya Schoolman:

Our bedrock thing that we do over, and over, and over is the solar co-op. And there’s similar things people might have heard of elsewhere called solarize campaigns. The co-op’s a little different because it’s really run, and managed, and led by local communities. And if there’s a municipal partner or somebody else involved. A church, a school, a university. They’re in a supportive role but it’s the local community that really takes control of the process. We’ve done 30 megawatts of solar, that’s over 2000 houses. We’ve done 210 buying groups since we started keeping careful records on Salesforce. There was probably another 20 before that.

Anya Schoolman:

What it is you get a group of people together, you teach them about solar, and you evaluate the roofs and help them understand that they haven’t a good place for solar. And then we issue a request for proposal out on behalf of that group. It’s a service that we provide, and then the group gets bids, and the companies are bidding to do all of the installs at the group. We save the companies a lot of money by finding, educating, and weeding out customers so that the customer acquisition or the cost of getting customers is much, much cheaper for the companies. Therefore, the companies can make a really good, aggressive bid. And they also know that we know what we’re doing. So we’re checking her references, the quality, warranties, equipment, etc.

Anya Schoolman:

And then the community convenience a special bid selection group who evaluates the bids. We answer questions, we help them understand it, and then the community itself picks one installer to do all their installs. And then we support all the way along. We check in with the installer every week. “How’s it going? Are there problems with permitting? Are there problems with utility interconnection? Is the homeowner getting back to you?” So we’re the onboard troubleshooters all the way to the process and we help the whole group go solar. And by going solar as a group, not only do people get better prices, which is important, but they also get a better process and they have power to fight the barriers that come along the way. And believe me. In most communities, there’s a lot of barriers to going solar.

Sam Easterby:

I imagine that the regulatory landscape, the hurdles that you faced with homeowners, neighborhoods, communities, along with utilities were very different back in 2007. What was it like then, and how have things changed? Is it easier to gain acceptance for local solar energy today?

Anya Schoolman:

I don’t know if it’s easy. I think it’s been methodical. The way we think about it is every time we do a project, if we run into a barrier, we take on that barrier as a group. And by organizing, we have an incredible track record of success. So when we started in many towns, they for example didn’t have a permitting system set up for solar at all. And one person or two person complaining the mayor wouldn’t get an action. But if we got 50 or 75, or 100 homeowners all calling the mayor one week and saying, “Fix the permitting system. It’s broken, it doesn’t exist. It’s cumbersome, it’s too expensive,” whatever. All of a sudden that would go to the top of the list. And you could see towns in two weeks, fixing a permitting system when it had been weeks before.

Anya Schoolman:

Same has happened with utilities. When we started in D.C., it was sometimes taking six months to get permission from the utility to connect your system. So we’ve started a system of filing complaints by all our homeowners at the Public Service Commission. The Public Service Commission is the agency that regulates the utilities. Once those things get into the docket, once they get filed, it’s essentially like the report card for the utility. It’s part of their record. It gets looked at when they go to ask for rate increases. And all of a sudden, we went from six months to six weeks and even less. So it’s really about organizing people, taking the barriers head on, complaining loudly, and then cycling back and making the work better and better.

Sam Easterby:

That really leads into my next question too, and I think you have just done it of giving us a snapshot of what some of the best practices are for adopting solar in neighborhoods or communities, or even by institutions. Are there other elements too that you would pass along to folks?

Anya Schoolman:

Well, people need to get educated about price. There’s a lot of bad information about price. So if you’re going with a group, that’s one thing. If you’re not, get bids from multiple companies. Check references, check their track record, and really get educated about price. Just being an educated customer and sharing information.

Anya Schoolman:

And I guess one other thing I would say is once you go solar, you need to tell other people about it. What we see over and over is that people have outdated, 10 year old information about solar. They think it costs $40,000, not $10,000. They think it’s 10 years ago essentially. So one of the things that we’ve been really working on is a national solar tour where anyone in the country can sign up online, it’s like nationalsolartour.org, and they can have an open house in the fall in the first weekend in October. Show off their system, but more importantly explain to their neighbors how easy it was to go solar.

Sam Easterby:

Anya, one of the things that we certainly seem to hear a lot about these days are our energy rights. On your website, you talk a good bit about solar energy rights. What are those energy rights or those solar energy rights from your perspective?

Anya Schoolman:

There is a fundamental right that we have to make our own energy on our own private property, without interference and abuse by the utilities. And what we’re seeing is a well organized strategy by the utilities to try to shut down rooftop solar and community solar. We’ve seen a real shift where utilities are open to the kind of solar that they can own, mark up, and profit from themselves. But the idea that you can make your own power is really an anathema to the utilities. So what we’re seeing is all sorts of campaigns to do fixed charges, and minimum bills, and take away your right for excess generation, or make it illegal or difficult to interconnect. Most states for example, have an absolute cap on the number of systems that can be connected to the grid. And we’re coming up on those caps in state after state.

Anya Schoolman:

So there shouldn’t be any cap on the amount of systems that can be connected to the grid. Anybody should be able to build solar. And then fundamentally, if you have extra solar, if you have extra energy that you’re making, you should be able to sell it to your neighbor or share it with your neighbor. So it’s pretty simple, but you would be surprised how hard we have to fight for these simple rights state, after state, after state.

Sam Easterby:

And right down to the community level as well?

Anya Schoolman:

That’s right.

Sam Easterby:

We’ve heard the term the democratization of energy, more freedom to choose where your energy comes from. And another somewhat new term, prosumers, people producing and consuming electricity. So it seems like you’re touching on those things, but how do those ideas impact people in communities today? What are the concepts that are a part of these elements, this prosumer, this democratization that are important for people to think about?

Anya Schoolman:

I think there’s two key concepts. Are the issue of democratization, I think it often gets lost that we’re sort of on the cusp of a technological revolution. It’s being fought out right now about whether communities, individuals, homeowners, and businesses get to take control of their energy, or whether they’re going to remain a passive customer where they just buy it from an investor owned utility or a local monopoly utility. And I think that democratization of energy is really about building transparency and fairness in the system. Not just letting utilities make an automatic rate of return no matter what they do, no matter how they serve you, no matter how they invest their money. That model has really reached an end.

Anya Schoolman:

The idea of a prosumer in some ways is even more interesting because it’s about taking the people who use energy from being a passive consumer where the utility’s job is just make as much energy as people use, and the consumer’s job is just used as much as they want, whenever they want. And making them really an active part of a dynamic system.

Anya Schoolman:

So I think what is right around the corner, the potential that people need to see is the idea that we can all be in a dynamic system linked together, where we can produce energy, we can store energy, we can put energy into the grid when other people need it. We can save energy in our batteries when there’s too much energy. And therefore, we could smooth out the prices. We can make energy cheaper for everyone. We can integrate massive amounts, up to 100% percent of renewable energy on the grid. And we can do all that while saving people money, and that’s the really delicious promise of this prosumer movement. But it really involves individual people becoming active participants in the market, not just passive consumers in the market.

Sam Easterby:

When you’re talking with people at the neighborhood level, at the community level, what point jumps out more? What factor leads the discussion? Is it really around the cost of the energy and the reliability of our energy, or is it around climate change? What elements are leading the charge?

Anya Schoolman:

One of the things that’s really part of our bedrock approach is we’ve never tried to convince people to go solar. We’re starting with people who already want to go solar and we’re helping them to do it and making it easier for them. Because what we find over and over in our discussions is people are already convinced, and they’re convinced for a mixture of reasons. Many are really motivated by climate change, as many are motivated by self-sufficiency.

Anya Schoolman:

I just saw a postcard from someone, we’re running this national postcard game, which is I Love My Solar, where we’re sending postcards from people who have solar to all of our state and federal legislators to raise the awareness of how much people love their solar. And it was a picture of someone’s house and it said, “Ready to retire.” I was just like, wow. It captures so many aspects of this. It captures costs. It captures your obligation to the next generation. It captures self sufficiency and locking in your expenses. And it’s just the sense of total satisfaction. I did something real and tangible, and bam. Microphone drop, ready to retire.

BEGIN INTERSTITIAL (Bill Nussey)

Okay local energy champions. Your pop quiz question this week is really out of this world. Are you ready? This month is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. With that milestone in mind, here’s your question. What was the name of the first American spacecraft to land on the moon that was designed to use solar power?

Back on Earth, more and more people today are exercising their energy rights to generate their own electricity by putting solar on their homes and businesses. But just as we’re hearing, it isn’t always easy. Head over to freeingenergy.com and learn about four steps that are 100% achievable with current technology to not only install solar, but even take yourself off the grid. Just search for off grid on freeingenergy.com. Before we know it, generating all your own electricity will be as easy as installing a new air conditioner.

So what did you guess? The answer is in 1962, Ranger 4 was the first American spacecraft to reach another celestial body, the moon. And it was designed to be powered by solar energy. The Ranger 4 power design contained 8,680 solar cells and two solar panels which charged an 11.5 kilogram, 1,000 watt-hour capacity launching and backup battery. Now back down to earth with more from Sam and Anya.

END INTERSTITIAL

Sam Easterby:

We’ve seen a number of different studies that talk about the cost of solar, and you touched on this a little bit that there are a lot of misconceptions, there’s a lot of bad information out there about the cost of installing solar. But one of the big elements that we have seen was the cost of meeting regulations. Have you seen that change since 2007? Have you seen a difference in those costs? Are you encouraged by what’s happening with regard to regulations and the regulatory requirements?

Anya Schoolman:

It’s still a big problem. I think that in markets where we’ve been working, we have steadily drove down those costs in a number of ways. One is putting pressure on government to make it easier to get permits, and easier and smoother to get interconnection. So we’ve helped, but there’s so many more communities. And there’s so much more work to be done. And the problem is that every municipality has its own permitting system. So there’s been a lot of national work to try to get uniform, online, shorter systems. I think it’s a heavy lift. I think there’s a lot more work to be done and that as people get more and more used to solar, that work and that improvement will go faster.

Anya Schoolman:

I remember when I took the head electrical inspector to D.C. up on my roof and he said, “That’s the first solar system I’ve ever seen up front.” And that was just 10 years ago. So sometimes I think we get really frustrated, but I think that more and more municipalities are getting on board and trying to fix the systems and lower those costs. But there’s a lot we can do to make it better.

Sam Easterby:

That brings up the question too. You are rolling out programs in all 50 states. You have well established programs across the country. As I look at those different programs in different states that you’re more active in, it seems to me that some of them might be a little more difficult to work in than others. Is that the case or are there some areas around the country that are a little bit easier to work with than others?

Anya Schoolman:

Yeah, there’s definitely a huge variation. There are some states that have incentives for solar. And most states have no incentives, so there’s a difference there in terms of the number of years of payback. And then there’s just the general economy working in a state like West Virginia that has a really high poverty rate. There’s just less people that have money around, even for home improvements, much less going solar. For example, in West Virginia, besides our co-ops, which are small but continuing. We also do a lot of work helping farmers take advantage of the US Department of Agriculture grants for renewable energy, so that we can help small businesses and farms in rural areas take advantage of solar. And it’s actually a great program. It’s a 25% grant on top of the federal tax credit for going solar. So depending on the state, we might focus more on some issues than others, but it’s more a difference of how fast and how hard the program grows.

Sam Easterby:

And that’s of course working at the state, or the county, or a government level. But are you seeing communities and utilities themselves working together a little bit better today or more today to find solutions? And what are some of the examples that you’ve run into?

Anya Schoolman:

I actually see utilities becoming more organized against rooftop solar than they were 10 years ago in a lot of ways. They are starting to see it take off. They’re worried that they’re going to have less customers. It’s essentially like when we had landlines, and the phone companies started to realize that people weren’t gonna use their product anymore. And there is an element of panic in the utility community, and they’re coming out with crazy punitive measures like fixed charges and even bans on rooftop solar. And I don’t think it’s constructive. I do see utilities embracing utility owned solar. And there’s been a huge shift there where they’re like, “Okay, if you want solar, we’ll build it. We’ll mark it up exorbitantly, and then we’ll sell it to you.” So we’ve seen these utility green tariff or green community solar programs popping up all over the place. Which is not a bad thing. For some people, it’s really helpful, but it’s not what we’re about. What we’re about is really community or individually owned solar, not utility owned solar. And I think we’ve got a long way to go. And originally, the pushback was just from the investor owned utilities, but now we’re starting to see even local municipal, rural electric co-ops pushing back as well.

Sam Easterby:

Interesting. Sort of an institutional self-preservation.

Anya Schoolman:

Yeah. And I think everybody could see a future in which utilities played a central role in this world where they’re the balancing mechanism. Where they are managing the data, the meters, the transmission, and making this whole complex distributed system work together. And I think people would be willing to pay utilities very well for that work. But that means they have to change their model, and their model isn’t based on building infrastructure and marking it up or owning a generation and marking it up. So it’s a real shift in the business model.

Sam Easterby:

The addition of batteries to the mix, batteries plus solar. It really does seem to be a way forward to address that intermittency of solar power as well as some of the issues around seasonality. How do batteries figure into the work that your organization is doing, and do you see different challenges from the regulatory standpoint when batteries are added to the mix?

Anya Schoolman:

Yeah, I agree with you. I think that hurries are the key to making the whole thing work, and I think we’re going to see it take off. What we’re really focused on is how do you get the small player involved in the battery and storage market, in a way that’s fair. And it’s complicated right now because it adds about a third to the cost of going solar. So a lot of people, that just pushes them over the edge in terms of what they could come up with. As we’re seeing the price of batteries go down, the fact that people are willing to pay to be able to keep the lights on when the grid goes down. The fact that hurricanes and storms are increasing. And now what I’m hoping is we’ll be the emergence of a whole suite of programs like demand response programs where people will actually get paid for having a battery and then making that capacity available to the grid and to the network, if it’s accessible by the utility. And if utilities can get beyond the idea of having to own all of the resources in the network, I think we could create a dynamic system that really benefits everybody.

Sam Easterby:

Do I take it that you see utilities responding a little bit differently when batteries are added in?

Anya Schoolman:

Some of them are, yeah. I think it’s very uneven. You’re seeing some utilities actually put up incentives for storage. And some of them still blocking it, so I think they’re all over the place right now. But I think that’s something that we’re going to see really rapid movement in the next even less than five years, three years.

Sam Easterby:

National elections are quickly taking the spotlight in the United States. What is Solar United Neighbor’s message to candidates?

Anya Schoolman:

We have two messages. One is an immediate asked to extend the investment tax credit for rooftop solar. It’s set to start stepping down. And while we have such huge incentives and subsidies out there for the rest of energy, we don’t think it’s time to step down the tax credit for solar. So extend the ITC for solar.

Anya Schoolman:

And then I would say that really, our bedrock is to affirm the right to net meter, affirm the access to the grid for anyone to make their own clean energy on their own private property, and that it should be an essential right of all Americans. And that I’d like to see candidates in all the parties getting behind that idea.

Sam Easterby:

Anya, what are two or three specific recommendations you would make to our listeners for how they can engage their communities?

Anya Schoolman:

What I would suggest is to start by doing a project. And what I see all the time is people get excited about this idea, and they go straight to the really super complex. “We want solar on all of our schools,” or, “We want to build a community owned micro grid that helps low income families,” wonderful ideas.

Anya Schoolman:

So what I would say is dial it back, do a project, even if it’s really small. Put solar on a gazebo in the park, put a solar awning over your school. One kilowatt or two panels. Do something small and go through the whole project cycle. Buy it, install it, interconnect it, permit it, celebrate it, and then do it again. And I think that if people would start taking that approach, we could scale this whole market much faster. I think that people get bogged down in these really grand ideas that sometimes take five to 10 years. And that if they would start scaling, they’d address the barriers and then they could scale, and then they could do it again, and they could do it again. And pretty soon we’re just going to see people taking over.

Sam Easterby:

That is really, really sage advice and it is amazing to me that this all started back when Walter and Diego came to you with an idea. Anya, we like to ask all of our participants in these podcasts a handful of questions just to get a snapshot of what people are thinking about currently. Share something that you think non industry folks would find most surprising about the work you were doing in this new world of energy.

Anya Schoolman:

What I want people to understand is that in most of America, it’s cheaper to make your own electricity on your roof than buy it from a utility. The energy that you make creates local jobs and saves you money, and that’s true almost everywhere in the United States.

Sam Easterby:

If you could wave a magic wand and see one thing changed on the transition to clean renewable energy, what would that change be?

Anya Schoolman:          I’d use a magic wand to make sure that every home, every office, every parking lot, and every building with a roof in the country is outfitted with solar that allows people to generate and control their own clean energy. The transition has to be built on energy independence for everyone. And trading dirty energy for monopoly renewable energy is a bad deal. We have the technology to make energy clean, and democratic. So why not do it?

Sam Easterby:

What do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate, store, and distribute electricity in the next five years?

Anya Schoolman:

I think what we’re going to see is a really robust set of rules for how to integrate storage and demand response into a dynamic grid. And so by demand response, meaning giving individual, not just big companies, but homes, small businesses, the ability to increase or decrease the amount of electricity they use so that the grid can be managed sustainably.

Sam Easterby:

What would you say to someone who asks, “What can I do to help make the change to clean energy?”

Anya Schoolman:

What I would tell anybody is get involved. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid or you’re so old, you can’t walk anymore. There’s things that you do. You can start a project, you could write your mayor, you could follow what’s going on at your public utility commission. Join Solar United Neighbors, and we have ways for everyone to get involved at any level of sophistication, or time availability. You can host an open house at our national tour, send a postcard to your legislator, earn a sun patch for your scouting troop, or organize a solar co-op in your neighborhood

Sam Easterby:

Anya, those are amazing suggestions. And what I’d like for you to share with folks today is what’s the website that you would have people visit?

Anya Schoolman:

Well, we’re at solarunitedneighbors.org and we also have special sites for this postcard campaign, which is I Love My Solar, the nationalsolartour.org.

Sam Easterby:

Anya, this has been an amazing discussion. You shared so much today and there’s a lot more I know that we could talk about. But I really do appreciate you taking the time to talk with us on the Freeing Energy podcast.

Sam Easterby:

Thank you for joining us today. You have been listening to the Freeing Energy podcast, personal stories from the clean energy movement. To learn more about the Freeing Energy Project, visit our website, freeingenergy.com.

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