by Stephanie Kimball

My partner and I both wanted solar for a long time, but my house was shaded, and he was renting — and besides, neither of us could afford it.  So when I sold my house and bought some land that included a barn in a sunny location, solar power became a vital part of our bigger dream — carbon neutrality.  In the spring of 2015, Philip had saved up enough for a small array, but since we were in the process of converting all our energy use to electricity, we wanted to maximize the power we could generate.  That’s when the idea of doing our own installation came in.  Through a friend’s recommendation we found Ryan Zaricki, an installer who was willing to support our DIY efforts, and so we dove in.

Our team consisted of three adults with extensive carpentry/construction experience, one teen who had a solid grasp of electrical wiring and everything mechanical, and me.  I’ve done a bit of woodworking and have been helping with the remodel of our house for the past couple of years, but still I brought the least experience to the crew.  Ryan explained the process to us, ordered and delivered the equipment, and promised to answer our calls if we ran into trouble.

Our busy schedules meant we could only work together every other weekend, so the task stretched out over a couple of months.  And the work was grueling.  The barn roof we were working on was metal, and had a low pitch, so that made things easier.  But it was HOT.  (Surprise!) We’d start early to try to make some progress before we wilted under the power of the sun whose energy we wished to harness.  The soles of my shoes melted off in the process of painting the roof white to keep it cooler.  If you have the means to hire experts to do your solar installation, I strongly recommend you do that.  They get the job done quickly, their work is guaranteed, and, well, it’s probably a good idea for most people to avoid drilling holes in their roofs.  Plus, sticking with doing whatever each of us does best helps keep our installers in business, and that’s a good thing.

In the end, though, we put up 24 panels.  The system worked, the roof didn’t leak, and nobody was too badly sunburned.  I wondered if maybe other people in situations like ours could make solar possible by doing their own installations, too.  But we had a deck to build, and a house under construction, so that idea was put on hold.

Then, about a year later, a friend approached me after reading Bill McKibben’s latest essay on the urgency of action needed on climate change, and basically challenged me to come up with an idea to get solar on more rooftops.  In this locale, SIREN (Solar Indiana Renewable Energy Network) is the expert organization promoting solar power, and I knew they were working with the City of Bloomington to establish a “solarize”  program.  Simply put, that’s a group-purchase of solar systems where SIREN vets solar contractors and negotiates a price, then publicizes the opportunity and recruits homeowners to sign up.  It’s a win-win proposition, as both homeowners and solar contractors get to skip the lengthy, time-consuming process of getting and evaluating multiple bids, trying to decipher technical specifications of various equipment options, and so on.  As SIREN says, they provide the “Easy Button” for participants.  And it’s good for installers, as they get a steady stream of customers.

Even though the price for solar had fallen dramatically, and these group buys brought the cost down even more, there were still lots of people who couldn’t afford to participate.  SIREN points out that even if you have to take out a loan, it can still be a good deal, because your monthly loan payments will likely be about the same as what your electric bill would have been, and after ten years or so you’d have a paid-for solar system and all your electricity after that would be free.  Still, not everyone qualifies for that sort of loan.  If you have debt, and/or low income, it can be hard to convince a bank to go along with you on this.

It seemed to me that if we could start a program that would organize teams of volunteers to help homeowners with DIY installations, we might be able to get panels up on quite a few more homes.  And if we could find a way to subsidize the solar equipment itself, we could enable even more households to go solar.

In discussions with SIREN, the idea came up to add a small charge per watt to the price that Solarize participants would pay for their installations.  They would still get a great deal on their solar arrays, still paying less than they would have if they’d signed a contract with an installer on their own, and without the hassle of doing all that.  I think of it as homeowners’ opportunity to give a little back, after receiving so much from SIREN — except instead of the gifts going to SIREN, which is an all-volunteer organization with no interest in benefiting financially from solarize programs, they are given to Solar for All, to help even more people go solar.

(SIREN volunteers, by the way, put an enormous amount of time, effort, and expertise into these solarize programs.  I’ve worked with a lot of wonderful people in several effective non-profit organizations, but I’ve never seen anything like this group.  They are meticulous in looking out for the best interests of solarize participants, respectful of the businesses and government agencies they deal with, diligent in their research, extremely generous with their time in educating the public about the ins and outs of solar energy, and dedicated to timely, professional communication with everyone who reaches out to them.  And now they are sharing their expertise with groups around the state, helping them establish solarize programs of their own.  I can’t say enough good stuff about these folks.)

In 2017, just as we were gearing up to get started, Solar for All hit some bumps.  The Indiana legislature conjured up SB 309, which would essentially end net metering. SFA, SIREN, and lots of other concerned folks spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince the Statehouse what a bad idea this was, but they went ahead and passed it anyway.  Instead of ending net metering immediately, though, they agreed to phase it out over thirty years.  The biggest benefits would go to people who completed their installations before the end of 2017, so there was a mad rush to meet an overwhelming demand.  Of necessity, SFA was bumped to the back burner once again.

Sometime in 2018 things began to settle down, and gradually SFA regained some momentum.  Whole Sun Designs (Ryan Z’s company) had already made substantial donations to SFA, and now they agreed to provide training for volunteer installers as well as other support. In the summer we began interviewing people who had somehow heard about our fledgling program and signed up on our website.

Our intent was to choose one household, or possibly two, that we could take on as a  “pilot”  for our program.  We were still a little nervous about finding enough volunteers to do the installations, and how to train them adequately.  And there was so much additional work to do if this was to become an ongoing program.  But in talking with potential clients, we discovered something we hadn’t dared hope for:  each household was not only willing and able to volunteer, but offered a stunning range of skills and expertise.  Among this pool of applicants were people with experience in volunteer management, cooking for a crowd, social media, web development, writing, carpentry, construction, computer networking, and more.  And they had friends and relatives they could draw on to provide even more  expertise.

With this realization, we began rethinking our program.  We decided to ask all the applicants if they would be willing to pool their various skills and commit to the organization more broadly than we had originally asked, in order to ensure that all eight households could get a solar array instead of just one or two.  They all agreed, and we all jumped in.

We now have teams working on fundraising, media, and communications, so that we can grow and sustain the program.  We have over twenty trained volunteer installers, and others who have been learning on the job, and we’ve completed the four installations planned for this fall.  Next spring we will complete the other four, with the help of new  volunteer crews who will put in  hours learning from the current cohort, then take over to do their own installations and train the next cohort, and the process will continue.

We’ve been really fortunate to have Ryan Zaricki and his company Whole Sun Designs working with us on this project.  They’re knowledgeable, professional, and efficient — and have generously shared their time and expertise at every step of the way.  I doubt we could have made this happen without their support.

Working on Solar for All has been an amazing journey so far — frustrating at times, to be sure, but seeing that first completed array was a feeling like no other.  Getting solar panels up where they would not have been installed without this program is extremely satisfying.  But equally rewarding has been the experience of working together, making new connections, building community. It’s enough to give a tired person hope.