Should your home or business convert to solar energy? Two groups in Fort Wayne can help

As Fort Wayne’s weather gets warmer, homeowners are beginning to work on projects. Should transitioning to solar energy be higher on your to-do list?

Nationwide, more homeowners are shifting to renewable energy alternatives as a way to save money and fight climate change. Before the pandemic, 2019 was a record-setting year, with more than 2 million homes throughout the U.S. adding solar panel installations and experts estimating even more growth in years to come.

“According to our latest forecasts, by 2024, there will be on average, one solar installation per minute,” says Michelle Davis, Senior Solar Analyst with Wood Mackenzie.

But in Fort Wayne and Indiana as a whole, the process of going solar can be challenging to understand, muddled by big business interests that have stifled the growth of cleaner, cheaper energy sources for consumers.

Now, two groups, Solarize Indiana and the national Solar United Neighbors (SUN), are teaming up to accelerate the transition to clean energy in Fort Wayne by educating and creating opportunities to increase the number of solar owners here.

Solar United Neighbors (SUN) advocates in Carmel, Ind.

Traditionally, transitioning to solar power over other power sources can be a money-saving move for families and property owners. A sustainable process called net metering allows anyone with a solar panel or wind turbine on their property to receive a financial credit on their utility bill for sending excess electricity they generate back to the electric grid.

As a result, the Indy Star reports that net metering initially led to “an explosion in solar energy investment in Indiana” with more than 75 solar companies in the state that employ roughly 3,600 Hoosiers. But in May 2017, Indiana’s controversial Senate Bill SEA 309, was signed into law, which has drawn criticism from conservatives and liberals alike, designed with the intention to benefit monopolized utility corporations over taxpayer interests.
 
SEA 309 is scheduled to end net metering in Indiana as early as January 2022, making solar energy less fiscally feasible and enticing for households and businesses. In response, SUN and Solarize Indiana have announced a new program to expand the use of clean energy alternatives in cities like Fort Wayne, using a free solar co-op model.

“The cooperative model is totally free for those interested, and there is no obligation to go solar,” says the Hoosier-raised Director of SUN’s Indiana Program Zach Schalk. “It's really just an opportunity to learn about solar technology and get a free custom quote at a group rate.” 

Solarize Indiana is comprised of local, volunteer teams across the state.

Schalk says this strategic partnership will help Hoosiers better understand solar and navigate impending changes in the state. It will also keep SUN and Solarize Indiana coordinated in their efforts to help Hoosiers reap the benefits of solar energy, rather than losing out to large corporations.

“By working together, SUN and Solarize Indiana can make sure we're having the biggest possible impact and making it as simple as possible for Hoosiers to install rooftop solar,” Schalk says. “By combining our efforts, we're expanding our reach and making sure that we're rowing the boat in the same direction and, ultimately, benefiting as many people as possible.”

We spent some time getting to know both groups making progress on solar energy in Indiana.

Solarize Indiana

Before Solarize Indiana got its start, Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network (SIREN) existed in Bloomington and Columbus. While SIREN was interested in renewable energy from day one, the idea of creating several markets by matching customers and vendors wasn’t something they were explicitly involved in, says Solarize Indiana Board Member Michael Mullet.

Instead, SIREN was in the early phases of advocating for solar and practicing it to protect the environment. Then the passing of Senate Bill SEA 309 moved them to create Solarize Indiana.

So how does it work?

Solarize Indiana is comprised of local, volunteer teams across the state who are organizing to help Hoosiers not only learn about the benefits of going solar, but also get group discounts on solar installations to continue progress on clean energy here. 

Essentially, they simplify the process of going solar by selecting an installer that will provide the best rates to community members and connecting them with households who want to make the transition. This makes it easier for homeowners to use clean energy without struggling to find the best option to fit their budget.

Through the 2017 Solarize program, teams from South Bend to Evansville successfully reached a total of 1,400 Hoosiers through information sessions, resulting in nearly 300 homeowners going solar and increasing the number of recorded solar rooftop installations in Indiana by 20 percent.

By the end of that year, Solarize Indiana was awarded “Sustainability Champion of the Year” at the 2017 Greening the Statehouse.

The Solarize model of matching consumers with solar companies for group discounts originated in Portland, Ore., where it quickly spread throughout the region. As Solarize Indiana watched which models were working in other parts of the country, they worked to implement a similar model here, motivated by the conviction that converting households to solar, one-by-one, is vital in the fight against climate change.

“If you want climate action to succeed, you can't just depend upon the large institutions,” Mullet says. “You have to be able to involve everyday people in their day-to-day lives. Rooftop solar is a way to do that.”

Solarize Indiana helps homeowners get group discounts on solar installations to continue progress on clean energy in Indiana.

While the financial cost of converting to solar energy is a hurdle for some families, it can be addressed through group rates. Mullet believes the bigger obstacle Hoosiers are facing with solar is political battles with utility providers who stand to lose the most if individuals and communities can reap the benefits of this clean energy source.

“Utility providers want to use this idea that rooftop solar is only for the benefit of higher income,” Mullet says. “They want to use that as a means of stopping it from spreading.”

While ending net metering adds a hurdle to the equation by making solar less profitable for consumers, it’s not the end of the road for solar energy advocates in Indiana.

One way for solar energy to expand on a broader community level would be for low- and moderate-income housing projects to utilize solar panels in builds, Mullet says. Government subsidies to corporations would also serve as an incentive for transitioning to solar energy.

“We can come up with a shared vision and a different way of achieving our mission,” Mullet says. “Even without net-metering, we can do community solar.”

Solarize Indiana was awarded “Sustainability Champion of the Year” at the 2017 Greening the Statehouse.

While Solarize was not able to gain federal support for their projects in 2017, Mullet is hopeful more work can be done with President Joe Biden’s administration and clean energy incentives. He sees Solarize’s work in Indiana, of all places, as an integral cog to turning the tide on clean energy initiatives across the U.S.

“Indiana is the anchor of the ship of state of the United States,” Mullet says. “If you can move Indiana, you can move the United States. Some of us have got to put our shoulder to the wheel, and lift the anchor, and move the ship. We've got to say, ‘Okay, we accomplished this. That's not enough.’ We have to go beyond that. We have to look forward.”

Along with finding a path forward without net metering, Solarize Indiana is working to get more Indiana businesses and local governments involved in the push for solar energy. As a part of that mission, they’re partnering with a like-minded group, Solar United Neighbors (SUN), to expand solar energy in Fort Wayne.

Mullet is hopeful that Fort Wayne will see the same success SUN has experienced in Indianapolis, where it has held 42 National Solar Tour stops with the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) to educate the public about solar energy.

SUN has also partnered with the city of Indianapolis and the newly launched Thrive Indianapolis sustainability plan as part of Bloomberg American Cities Climate challenge. This allowed them to do ten rooftop solar installations for low-income homes at zero cost for the owners, helping to both transition them to clean energy and to save on their electric bills.

In 2017, Solarize Indiana increased solar rooftop installations in Indiana by 20 percent.

Solar United Neighbors

SUN is a national 501c3 nonprofit organization that helps residents go solar together and advocate for their right to obtain clean energy. It originally began as a volunteer-driven, neighborhood group in Washington, D.C., in 2007. 

Anya Schoolman, now SUN’s Executive Director, was initially approached by her son with an interest in doing something about climate change. After watching the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, he proposed that their household shift to solar energy.

At the time, the solar market in the U.S. was not nearly as accessible as it is now. After much research, Schoolman decided the best option was to recruit households in her neighborhood to go solar with them. The result was about 50 homes coming together in what was to be SUN’s first solar cooperative.

Ten years later, SUN has grown from its humble beginnings into a national nonprofit with on-the-ground programs in 12 States, including Indiana. They have nearly 5,500 completed solar cooperatives and have helped invest more than $100 million nationally through the cooperatives work.

“We are helping people save on their electric bills, through the cooperatives,” says SUN’s Indiana Program Director Zach Schalk. “That’s the national scope of our organization.” Zach Schalk

Schalk says SUN’s new co-op with Solarize Indiana to expand solar energy use in Fort Wayne will make the concept of even more approachable with free, no obligation custom group quotes for going solar.

The Indiana program, as a whole, launched in 2019. When the opportunity arose, Schalk and his wife jumped at the chance to return to their roots and support Indiana's growing solar movement. Schalk grew up in downtown Indianapolis and attended to Indiana University in Bloomington. Later, he relocated to Washington, D.C., for graduate school until he returned to Indianapolis in 2019 to run SUN’s Indiana program.

“I've always been passionate about protecting the environment and trying to mitigate the worst damage potentially to come from climate change, but renewable energy in particular wasn't really central to anything that I had focused on until I started working at SUN,” Schalk says.

He was drawn to SUN because of his background in community and organizing. He also appreciated the organization’s emphasis on developing meaningful material relationships with their base and organizing a broad movement that can be mobilized to enact the changes that they want to see.

“The theory of change is really rooted in creating a virtuous cycle of helping people go solar; building a movement, educating, organizing, and activating that movement to fight for policies that make it easier for people to benefit from solar,” Schalk says.

Carmela Thomas celebrates a solar installation with Solar United Neighbors (SUN).

Energy democracy and the framework of thinking about the energy system excites Schalk and is what primarily attracted him to SUN, where has worked since 2017.

SUN is one of the organizations behind a campaign called 30 Million Solar Homes. As Schalk describes it, “This is a vision for reenergizing our economy and reorienting the nation's energy system towards distributed, clean, just and equitable future with rooftop solar at the cornerstone by enacting policies that enable both rooftop and community solar to be more widely adopted around the nation.”

Right now, Schalk says Indiana is in a position to move forward in a positive way, though policies like Senate Bill SEA 309 are in place and hindering that process. The loss of net metering in Indiana will affect new customers and investor-owned solar utility territory. In response, rooftop solar proponents across the U.S. have had to come up with different ways to incentivize people to invest in solar energy and ensure that people are properly valued for the benefits they are providing to the grid.

Unfortunately, Schalk points out, that has not been happening in Indiana so far.

“We have legislatively ended net metering and arbitrarily created a successor program that's not based on any data, evidence, or anything other than an arbitrary law,” he says.

A primary goal for SUN is working to ensure customers are able to benefit from going solar despite these setbacks. Right now, that means extending and expanding the period before net metering ends.

Bringing community solar to Indiana is another goal for SUN. It allows people to benefit from solar on their electric bill and subscribe to solar installations, which are developed somewhere else on the electric system, without it necessarily being on their roof, while still reaping the same benefits. This is especially critical for people who don't own their own homes or may not have the capital upfront for the cost of panels to still benefit and play a part in the solar future.

According to Schalk, community solar programs have been adopted by more than a dozen states around the country, and SUN believes Indiana should be the next.

The end of net metering is an inevitability that SUN is working to overcome by ensuring a framework exists that makes it possible for users to be a part of the energy transition and a future energy system that is more distributed and more localized.

“We think that there should be some kind of evidence-based, data-driven study to figure out what should come next,” he says. “How can we incorporate distributed energy resources, like rooftop, solar, but also electric vehicles and battery storage, into the future development of our energy system?”

For those passionate about sustainability, the most important first step is taking the time and energy to learn about the policies and communicate their support for pro-solar policies to their legislators.

“Ultimately, the reason anti-solar policies, such as SEA 309, have been put in place is because utilities have a lot of power, and they want to make sure that customers know that,” Schalk says. “They want to maintain and expand their monopoly that guarantees profits for them, and they don't want customers to be a part of that energy future.”

It is a long road ahead for Indiana to embrace a renewable energy future, Schalk admits. But the potential benefits to consumers are many, from financial gains to a healthier environment.

“There’s a great opportunity for customers, not just to play a part, but to actually benefit from it,” he says. “When you're able to generate clean electricity close to where it's used and bake that into your planning process as you're looking to the future, you can reduce the need for unnecessary investments.”

If you’re interested in going solar in Fort Wayne, the time to act is now.

“If you're interested at all in seeing if rooftop solar is something that could potentially be in your future, there's no time to waste,” Schalk says. “This is the time to do it, and there's no easier way to go solar than through the solar cooperative.”

Learn more

To find out if solar is a good choice for you, visit SolarUnitedNeighbors.org/FortWayne to sign up.

Visit SolarUnitedNeighbors.org, and sign up to be a part of the solar movement and stay informed about ways to act. Hoosiers can also contact their legislators, and let them know they want to see pro-solar policies, such as extending and expanding net metering.
 
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