Solarize the Land Trust brings affordable solar to King County homeowners

“It sounded like the United Nations,” said one participant at a solar energy workshop, where ECOSS conveyed information in Chinese, Vietnamese and Amharic. Two participant homeowners ultimately applied for and received solar grants, and are now producing solar energy.

This success was possible thanks to Solarize the Land Trust, a project piloted by Spark Northwest and Homestead Community Land Trust in King County, Washington. In total, this program has helped 11 low- to moderate-income homeowners start making electricity from the sun.

One of 11 homeowners to benefit from Solarize the Land Trust (middle).

For many families, solar can seem beyond reach—because of upfront costs, home prices or language barriers. To overcome these obstacles, Solarize the Land Trust brought together a unique team of solar experts, affordable homeownership providers, multicultural communicators and funders.

Over the summer of 2019, Spark Northwest, Homestead and ECOSS held workshops for Homestead’s homeowners to learn about solar, financing and the Solarize opportunity. Homeowners could then participate in a group purchase to receive a discount on installing solar and apply for a grant to help pay for it. Ultimately, 84 people attended workshops, 22 applied for grants, and 11 installed solar.

Under Homestead’s Community Land Trust model, an income-qualified buyer pays for and owns the home, while the land is owned collectively through Homestead. The home appreciates at a formula rate to keep it affordable to future low-income homeowners.

The homeowners led a competitive process to select a local solar installer for the group purchase. The selected installer, Puget Sound Solar, offered a discount to homeowners who participated in the program. Even with the group purchase savings, the upfront costs of installing solar still posed a major barrier for many of Homestead’s homeowners, so four foundations funded grants to help with the cost: All Points North Foundation, the Ren Che Foundation, Tudor Foundation and Union Bank. These grants helped ten homeowners, covering 65-100% of the system cost, depending on the homeowner’s site and preferences.

ECOSS and Puget Sound Solar visited homeowners to explain the solar panel installation process.

ECOSS’ Clean Energy program helps communities of color navigate language, cultural and knowledge barriers to access clean energy solutions. This perfectly complemented the Solarize the Land Trust program, where about 10% of Homestead homeowners have limited English proficiency.

“The Community Land Trust opportunity quickly gained steam because working directly with homeowners was simple and rewarding for our staff,” explained Jose Chi, one of ECOSS’ multicultural outreach managers.

ECOSS called each homeowner to explain the program in their preferred language and invited them to a workshop, where ECOSS offered simultaneous translation.

One multicultural homeowner is so excited about solar that “he asked for solar information in Vietnamese and Mandarin and he’s going to take it to work and give it to all of his neighbors,” said James Crawford, Residential Solar Adviser with Puget Sound Solar.

“Together we’ve made history,” said Kathleen Hosfeld, Homestead’s Executive Director at a gathering to celebrate the success of the program. “Going forward, housing must be both affordable and environmentally sustainable.”

Learn more about ECOSS’ Clean Energy outreach

Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS) educates and empowers businesses and diverse communities to implement environmentally sustainable practices. ECOSS leads industry, small businesses, communities and government to practical and sustainable environmental solutions. Through deep relationships built on trust and a capacity of 15+ languages, they deliver equitable strategies and results in stormwater compliance, pollution prevention, electrical vehicles, solar energy and recycling. Contact: William Chen, wchen@ecoss.org, (206) 767-0432 x1016; https://ecoss.org/

Spark Northwest accelerates the shift to clean energy one community at a time. Through its Solarize Northwest program, Spark Northwest has educated over 4,500 people in Washington and Oregon, resulting in over 1000 solar installations and over $21 million invested clean energy.  Contact: Jill Eikenhorst, jill@sparknorthwest.org, 206-457-5403; https://sparknorthwest.org/

Homestead Community Land Trust makes it possible for low- and moderate-income people of King County to own their own home. It was founded in 1992 to arrest the displacement of low- to moderate-income people from rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Homestead builds and rehabs homes; makes and keeps them affordable permanently through the community land trust (CLT) model; and supports homeowners in successful ownership. Homestead has 215 homes in trust, and is one of the largest community land trusts in Washington State. http://www.homesteadclt.org/

Puget Sound Solar Founded in 2001, by Pam Burton and Jeremy Smithson, Puget Sound Solar, (PSS) is the most experienced solar installation company in Washington.  PSS installed the first permitted grid-tie solar PV system in Seattle. Puget Sound Solar is proud of their history of engaging in educational activities and environmental policy work to benefit future generations. They’re a socially responsible company and engaged in the community. Contact: Stu Frothingham, sfrothingham@pugetsoundsolar.com, (206) 706-1931; https://www.pugetsoundsolar.com/

All Points North Foundation is dedicated to navigating communities upward. Established in 2011, its funding priorities include projects that promote solar energy awareness and implementation and evidence-based programs that measurably improve public middle school education. https://www.allpointsnorthfoundation.org/

An equitable approach to accessible clean energy

With new climate records being broken seemingly on a weekly basis, it is more important than ever to address the causes of our increasingly extreme climate. Transitioning to clean energy is a concrete solution for reducing our carbon footprint. But that transition needs to be just and equitable. Everyone must be included to ensure sustainable solutions.

Buying solar panels can be a daunting consideration for new homeowners in Puget Sound. First, the Greater Seattle Area is known for being cloudy and overcast most times of the year. This has led to the misconception that the region is not suitable for solar panels. While it’s true that Seattle will never see the levels of sunlight normal in southern United States, Seattle does receive more sunlight than most of Germany – a world leader in solar energy.

Moreover, Seattle’s climate offers some advantages. For example, frequent rain cleans off pollen and dirt from panels, thus reducing the need for maintenance. Furthermore, some solar cells become less efficient when temperatures get too hot.

Spark Northwest and Homestead Community Land Trust connected with ECOSS to engage communities of color and create equitable access to clean energy. Photo Credit: Solarize Northwest.

The real challenges for solar panels are lack of awareness, finances and bureaucracy. Installing solar panels demands a significant upfront investment. Although there are financial grants and incentives, navigating the processes to access them can be a barrier. Combined with the misconception that the Pacific Northwest is not suitable for solar, people give up on the hope of having solar panels, non-English speakers especially.

ECOSS strives to shift the narrative towards equity by empowering low-income immigrant homeowner families to access green energy. Partnering with Spark Northwest, Homestead Community Land Trust and Puget Sound Energy, ECOSS is educating low-income homeowners, raising awareness about solar panel programs (e.g. Solarize the Land Trust) and helping community members navigate grants and incentives for installing solar panels on their property. For ECOSS, underserved communities are primary audiences, which include immigrants and refugees and non-English speakers.

ECOSS provides food at workshops and info sessions to lower the barriers of attending. Photo Credit: Sam Le.

Engagement is not successful with only one interaction. ECOSS hosts workshops where homeowners are invited to learn more about solar energy. These workshops include interpretation, childcare services and food, recognizing that these are all common needs for families to attend. If an attendee is interested, ECOSS connects them with a solar panel contractor and helps homeowners assess whether solar panels are the right choice given their electricity use, roof suitability and more.

ECOSS works with businesses and community members throughout the process of creating sustainable solutions. Photo Credit: Ned Ahrens.

If this all sounds familiar, it is because ECOSS has pioneered this type of community engagement before. ECOSS advances equity throughout the cycle of installing Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI), from engaging immigrant and refugee homeowners to recruiting and guiding multicultural contractors. This outreach simultaneously provides stormwater solutions and creates green career pathways within marginalized communities. And ECOSS is working to provide the same model for solar panel outreach.

ECOSS is excited to leverage decades of experience to bring an equity lens to solar panel outreach with communities throughout Puget Sound. As the program grows, ECOSS will consider how previous experience with GSI can inform solar panel demonstration sites and contractor training.

Learn more about ECOSS clean energy projects