A Small-Scale Solar Project with a Big Impact in LaGrange, Georgia
By Nicole Hernandez Hammer, Project Director, CESA
The LaGrange Housing Authority in LaGrange, Georgia has found novel ways to advance renewable initiatives in a state that does not offer the kinds of support, programs, or incentives for renewable energy offered in many other places. The Housing Authority’s approach to building interest in solar through a small-scale solar project provides a useful model for other communities that lack significant front-end capital and state-level policy support but desire to move a just energy transition forward in their communities.
The LaGrange Housing Authority focuses on addressing the deficit of safe and affordable housing in the city of LaGrange. It provides 400 units of housing to the community and offers many community-focused programs.
In 2017, Groundswell (a national nonprofit that develops and supports shared solar projects) and The Solutions Project (a national intermediary funder of innovative renewable energy projects in support of a just transition) had been assessing project opportunities. Groundswell had existing relationships in Georgia and began exploring a partnership with the LaGrange Housing Authority. The Solutions Project developed a series of rapid response grants ($10,000–$25,000) to support community-led efforts to develop local, small-scale solar energy initiatives. It prioritizes projects in in disadvantaged communities that do not have strong state policy support and that may be well-positioned to leverage a small project to move future project expansion forward. While this can be a risky investment strategy, The Solutions Project believes that supporting frontline communities in areas like the American South, where there are limited streams of financing for renewable energy projects, could help catalyze policy action and expand solar in new markets, while proving that there is great capacity and community support throughout the US to expand solar with justice.
Groundswell played a key role in connecting The Solutions Project with the LaGrange Housing Authority. Groundswell Marketing Director Becca Eiland lives in LaGrange and had been following the Housing Authority’s innovative community programs. From after-school programs to homeownership classes and connecting talented high school students to college opportunities, the Housing Authority looks to improve the lives of residents and position them for independence and success. The LaGrange Housing Authority had the flexibility provided by being in the service territory of a municipally owned utility and its existing community outreach model could be adapted to fold renewables into its mission.
Groundswell applied for The Solutions Project grant and $15,000 in funds were awarded for a small-scale solar project. The Solutions Project trusted community partners to best understand what the project should be and gave them the flexibility to design, adapt, and implement the project. Groundswell provided support to the LaGrange team as it explored different ideas. The team considered a rooftop solar project on a single-family home but they were concerned that this would not benefit enough residents or stimulate the level of community involvement that they wanted. They decided to install a SmartFlower unit, a ground-mounted all-in-one solar system fitted with a tracker that follows the sun’s movement.
Gathering Community Support
Groundswell served as project manager and the LaGrange team provided leadership and made all the decisions regarding the project, in partnership with community members. The team selected the area between the LaGrange Housing Authority offices and their community center to install a 2.5-kilowatt SmartFlower. This location allowed for community members to regularly see the SmartFlower. The team partnered with local businesses and willing volunteers to store and transport the unit. The local businesses also assisted with pouring the concrete and some technical support, though the Facilities Director at the LaGrange Housing Authority, Earnest Pickett, was able to do much of the installation and maintenance work with his staff. Mr. Pickett envisions this as a first step in engaging the community in a long-term plan to achieve net-zero energy housing for all residents in Housing Authority properties.
The SmartFlower is currently powering the La Grange Housing Authority Offices, resulting in an average monthly savings of approximately $50. The savings are being used for additional after-school enrichment programs. And school-aged students are learning about the SmartFlower and the benefits of renewable energy. Mr. Pickett stops the SmartFlower so the youth can interact with it and learn how it works. Some of the students have already expressed an interest in renewable energy careers.
In the summer of 2019, the LaGrange Housing Authority, Groundswell, The Solutions Project and the City of LaGrange had a ribbon-cutting event to celebrate the installation of the SmartFlower. Over 100 residents, LaGrange municipal staff, and the Regional Director of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development gathered to see the SmartFlower in action and to congratulate the community on this important first step. To commemorate the event, students participating in the program created a mural representing the SmartFlower and what it means to their community. They included visuals and messages about a clean environment and a sustainable future.
Ms. Heard and Mr. Pickett, along with their team, are working toward expanding their environmental efforts including tankless water heaters, energy-efficient appliances, and rainwater collections systems. They are also developing additional clean energy projects, including pilot homes with four-kilowatt roof-mounted solar PV systems. The broader goal is the renewable energy and efficiency development of all 27 lots managed by the Housing Authority servicing low-income families and seniors. Projected household savings are estimated be at least $300 per month, which is significant for LaGrange household incomes. The high visibility of the project has provided opportunities to apply for HUD and State of Georgia grants to advance this project.
The LaGrange Housing Authority’s SmartFlower project demonstrates the leverage that can be gained from a small-scale project to create a large impact through community engagement, local business partnerships, and philanthropic support. Currently, Groundswell and The Solutions Project are working with LaGrange on a possible second-phase project.
This blog post is an excerpt from CESA’s 2019 report, “Solar with Justice: Strategies for Powering Up Under-Resourced Communities and Growing an Inclusive Solar Market.”
March 9, 2020