What began with one Washington, D.C. neighborhood has grown into a national network committed to building community renewable energy systems across the country.
In 2006, 12-year-old neighborhood pals Walter Lynn and Diego Arene-Morley attended a screening of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth—a documentary about climate change—with their parents. The two boys surfaced from the movie with an acute observation: “Why do so many grown-ups talk about climate change but don’t do anything about it?”
The two boys then asked their parents, “Why don’t we just put solar on our houses?” It was a seemingly simple question with a not-so-simple answer, recalls Walter’s mom Anya Schoolman. “Back then, solar [electricity] was very expensive, installing for about $8 per watt. There were no locally or federally funded rebates available, and the District’s policy did not encourage utilities to provide incentives,” says Schoolman, who understood the complexities of energy policy having held high-level positions in the U.S. Department of the Interior. “I knew it would be a lot of work, jumping through the hoops and dealing with all the bureaucracy. Rather than do all that work for just one or two houses, we came up with the idea to do solar at the neighborhood scale.”
The two boys, Schoolman, and Diego’s father Jeff Morley hashed out a plan to bring rooftop PV systems to D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. At Schoolman’s kitchen table, about two miles from the White House, the Mount Pleasant Cooperative (MPC) was born. “We started with the idea of a bulk-purchase program, but we quickly discovered that we needed to first address the holes in the existing policy,” Schoolman says.
Over the next couple of years, the MPC organized members and lobbied for new local energy policies. As a result of their efforts, the District passed landmark legislation that created rebates and incentives for RE systems, which made residential rooftop PV systems more affordable. With favorable policies in place, the MPC organized a series of bulk solar purchases, saving participating co-op members 20% or more on installation and equipment costs. Since then, nearly 100 row houses in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood have installed grid-tied PV systems.
As word spread about the MPC’s success, Schoolman received requests from other D.C. neighborhoods interested in starting their own co-ops. By 2010, she had helped launch cooperatives in all eight wards of the District and formed a citywide umbrella organization called DC Solar United Neighborhoods (DC SUN), which lobbies for local RE policy change and provides support for neighborhood solar co-ops.
Before long, Schoolman was fielding calls and emails from people all over the country. In 2011, she founded the Community Power Network (CPN), a nonprofit group that serves as a platform for RE advocates to share their experiences about community RE projects. Supported by grants from foundations and other organizations, the CPN has grown into a national network of more than 90 independent community and nonprofit organizations across the country.
“We have a broad definition of what community power is,” Schoolman says. “The projects come in all different shapes and sizes. It is not just the neighborhood cooperative. It can be a school or church that wants to go solar, a group of homeowners that want to build a solar garden, or a statewide group of citizens lobbying for policies that support community RE. The common thread is an interest in creating a decentralized RE system that benefits everyone.”