Featured photo: Diana Rosario stands in her backyard where you can see the dozen solar panels on her roof. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
When Wynetta Delois Hunt’s living room ceiling started leaking a few years ago, she didn’t think fixing it was going to be such a transformative process.
These days, as drivers go by, they’ll see the newly installed shingles on Hunt’s roof as well as the maroon awning that stretches across the front of her home. They might notice that her porch has been recently painted, the neatly trimmed shrubs and hostas that round out the landscaping. A little harder to discern are the objects that peek out just above the roofline on either side of the brick chimney. Once in Hunt’s backyard however, the picture becomes more clear. Taking up most of the surface area on the back of her roof are more than a dozen brand-new solar panels.
“I like it for the simple reason that God blessed me and blessed someone else to tell me about it,” Hunt says. “Therefore, I agreed to getting the solar panels.”
Hunt, who has owned the small two-bedroom house off of Freeman Mill Road in the Smith Homes neighborhood for almost three decades, is one of 10 Greensboro homeowners who had solar panels installed on their homes last year. A collaborative partnership between a number of local and national organizations made it possible to provide the energy-efficient structures, normally quite expensive, to the homeowners for free.
“So far, the saving for the 10 homes combined has been about $4,000,” said Brandon Pendry of Southern Energy Management, an energy-efficiency and solar power company. “That’s an average of $400 saved per family.”
A collaborative spirit
The installation of the 10 solar projects, which were set up in November 2021, was due to the combined efforts of four different organizations: the national HBCU Clean Energy Initiative, NC A&T State University’s Center for Energy Research and Technology, Southern Energy Management and Community Housing Solutions.
It started with the HBCU Clean Energy Initiative, a national advocacy group for community development around clean energy. In the last few years, the organization has been conducting roundtables to bring funders on board to complete some of their work. In 2020, the JPB Foundation awarded the group $700,000 to install solar panels for moderate-to-low-income families across the country. After connecting with Southern Energy Management in Raleigh and A&T, Greensboro was picked as the project’s first city.
“A&T brought forward partners that they already had including Community Housing Solutions,” said Henry Golatt, the chief of strategy and partnerships for the HBCU Clean Energy Initiative. “Those relationships led us to the 10 homes that got done.”
In general, they were looking for homes with owners who qualified as low-income. They also had to make sure that the homes were in good enough shape to have the panels installed. Once Community Housing Solutions came on board, finding the homes proved to be easier because of the work the organization has already done in the community.
The local organization has made a name for itself through providing repairs and ownership opportunities to low-income homeowners in Guilford County. After the tornado ripped through homes in East Greensboro in 2018, the organization helped rebuild or repair many of the affected houses. They’ve also been working in partnership with A&T to weatherize local homes. In November, Wynetta Hunt called Community Housing Solutions to fix her roof. That’s how she became a candidate for the solar panels.
“A&T reached out and asked, ‘Hey, do you know of any homes in East Greensboro that would be good candidates for solar panels?’” said Gene Brown, the president and executive director of Community Housing Solutions. “That’s how we got involved.”
They looked for homes that they had worked on that had new or recently repaired roofs. They wanted ones that were energy efficient already with roofs that were unobstructed by trees or other buildings. Many of the homes they identified that had been repaired are owned by older adults or disabled homeowners like Hunt who have limited mobility, while new homes built by CHS tend to be owned by younger families or families with single parents. Many of the homes are within a few miles of A&T.
“We wanted to find houses within the footprint of A&T,” said Bob Powell, a recently retired associate professor in the college of engineering at A&T. “We wanted the houses to be in our community and have appropriate solar access.”
Despite the good intentions of the project however, the organizers found that they had a barrier to overcome when it comes to selling people on solar panels, even when they are free.
“One of the things that we learned from this project is that a lot of families are unfamiliar with solar,” Powell said. “Some of them were very reluctant to accept this gift. There were legitimate questions that people had.”
One of the reasons is due to the confusing nature of the current solar market.
A predatory market
It’s not uncommon for door-to-door salespeople to walk through neighborhoods, trying to sell homeowners solar panels. And many of them are predatory in nature, according to Brandon Pendry of Southern Energy Management.
“The solar industry is insanely wide in North Carolina,” Pendry said. “Basically there is a mix of two different pricing structures. One is local installers who price things in a fair manner at one level and then there’s the national tier of installer. These are companies where you would know their name more than you would know ours. They price their panels 30-40 percent over market and they do it through misleading marketing terms like ‘heavy-cash back incentives’ on the front end or ‘no payments for a year.’ Those are the kinds of programs they are marketing. The price that you pay ends up being quite a bit more than what the program is worth.”
Because these tactics are widely used within the industry, Powell said they had to work with the homeowners to build trust.
“We had to let people know we are not those people,” Powell said.
The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association has a code of conduct that is meant to curb this kind of predatory behavior and the association lists companies it has deemed fair on its site.
Southern Energy Management is on that list.
“The industry is on the upswing,” Pendry said. “Actors take advantage of the lack of knowledge so the burden falls on all of us. It falls on the installers, the media to report those things well.… Our hope is that as the industry grows, there will be light shed on those things.”
According to Pendry, SEM is the oldest solar company in North Carolina and started back in 2001. Since 2010, the company has been a certified B corporation that has focused on participating in several community initiatives. That includes working with the HBCU partnership and Habitat for Humanity in the Triangle. Through those relationships, the company provides solar panels at a discount.
“We look at what our standard pricing is and we see what we can afford to make a tiny profit or just break even,” Pendry said. “The goal of this project isn’t to make money, it’s to make sure people who are underrepresented in our solar world are represented.”
According to Pendry, the average cost to install solar panels on one’s home is about $25,000. A report by Consumer Affairs lists the average price for North Carolina homeowners at about $14,000. Still, that’s a lot for a low or even middle-income family.
“Solar is still not an affordable product for regular Americans,” he said.
One such American is Diana Rosario.
Big savings, increased value
In 2014, Diana Rosario purchased her first home through Community Housing Solutions. Initially, she and her fiancé were just looking for something to rent but found out that they qualified for a home through the organization. The one she got was a fixer-upper. It didn’t have any flooring, had no appliances, but the roof had been recently renovated.
“They didn’t want to show it to me because they say a lot of people get scared because the home wasn’t renovated,” Rosario said. “I came and I saw it and I said, ‘That’s my home,’ and I wanted to be a part of fixing it…. I had to just envision the vision.”
After buying her home through CHS, Rosario joined the board of the organization, which has a requirement that a third of the members have to be representative of the low-income community. Then, last year, Rosario heard about the solar-panel project and CHS’s involvement.
“I shot Gene an email and I said, ‘I’m interested in this,’” Rosario said.
In November 2021, Rosario got 17 panels installed on her roof. Since then, her electricity bill has decreased significantly.
“My light bill was coming in $120, $130 every month,” Rosario said. “My husband has the TV on all the time, my son be playing games and my daughter’s TV is on all the time. You know, cooking and appliances are running. We always have the A/C running in the summer. In the winter, the heat is always running. So I’m pretty sure that has something to do with it.”
Rosario’s home is about 1,150 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths. Since connecting the panels to the grid in January, her bill has consistently come in between $30-75 — a 50 percent decrease.
The system works by having the panels convert sunlight into electricity. An inverter converts the energy from the panels into electricity for the home. Extra energy gets put back in the grid, helping to offset future bills.
“Especially now, with inflation and everything going up, it’s always good to have a little extra to put away for emergencies,” Rosario said.
Eventually, she hopes to be able to use those extra savings to help her kids, aged 11 and 15, when they go to college.
“It’s tough out here so I want them to have a little head start if they decide to move,” she said.
In Wynetta Hunt’s case, she said before the panels were installed, she was paying about $65 for her electric bill for her 900 square-foot home.
These days, her bill comes in at around $15 per month.
“When you’re retired, you have a fixed income,” Hunt said.
Plus, Hunt found that the value of her home increased after she installed the solar panels.
“I know years ago when I moved here the value of it was really low, but after I saw I had work done to it, you know the city rides through and can see it’s had improvements done and things like that,” she said.
According to Zillow, Hunt’s home was valued at about $40,000 in 2014, the year she inherited it. Over the years the value has steadily risen to an average of about $70,000, but in the last six months, after the home got the panels, the value shot up to about $93,000.
And that makes Hunt happy because she plans to give the home to her daughters who she hopes will sell it and split the money between them and their children.
Rosario’s home, which is located off of Gillespie Street about 10 minutes from Hunt’s home closer to A&T’s campus, has also seen a significant increase in value in the last year. In 2018 when Rosario bought the home, it was valued at about $68,000. In December 2021, the value had shot up to $122,000. Now, it’s at about $140,000 according to Zillow.
Of course, not all of the homes’ value change can be attributed to the solar panels. As has been reported for months, the housing market has been red hot, with prices skyrocketing nearly 20 percent in the third quarter of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. Still, for low-income families, particularly Black and Brown families, who have struggled to build wealth over generations, the extra savings as well as added value from solar panels can be immeasurable.
‘They are for all the people’
“When you think about environmental injustice, Black and Brown communities have been exploited by dirty fuel, hog farms,” said Henry Golatt, with the HBCU Clean Energy Initiative. “These programs we want to be able to lift up what it means to clean up and use clean energy.”
All of the homes with the new solar panels are owned by Black and Brown families, Golatt said. And that has a lasting impact.
In addition to educating people about solar, the organization teaches budgeting and financial behavior modification to deploy the savings on a monthly basis and build generational wealth. And for Wynetta Hunt, just having the solar panels is a point of pride for her.
Hunt inherited her home eight years ago after living with the homeowner as his primary caretaker for years. Hunt had gone to nursing school and worked as a homeaid at the time when the previous owner passed away.
“He left everything to me,” she said.
In addition to working with the previous homeowner, Hunt worked in the homes of some of the wealthiest families in Greensboro. Some of them were members of the Morehead family that had owned the Blandwood Mansion downtown in previous generations.
“I still keep in touch with the families that I have taken care of,” Hunt said.
Christmas cards from the Morehead family sit next to cards from her own relatives in Hunt’s living room.
Growing up in a poor Black family as one of 12 children, Hunt said that working for rich, white families made an impression on her.
“I was working in these white homes and they had wallpaper in their bathrooms,” she said. “I had never seen no Black people with wallpaper; I liked it.”
Years later, Hunt got wallpaper installed in her own home.
When she first found out about the solar panels, Hunt had a similar reaction. Her daughter had seen homes with solar panels as she drove to and from work, but most of them were on homes in white neighborhoods.
“I don’t know anyone who is Black like me who has them,” Hunt said.
But she wants everyone to have access to them.
“They are for all the people regardless of what race they are,” she said.
Diana Rosario, who is Hispanic, said that she, too, had always assumed that solar panels were only for the wealthy.
“I always had heard that they’re so expensive and so I was like ‘Okay, well that’s not something I know I can afford,’ right?,” she said. “So it never really crossed my mind.”
Rosario, who works as a sales manager at Cricket Wireless, said she would sometimes ride along with her fiancé who works as a delivery driver for Amazon.
“We would go to these, you know, whiter neighborhoods and a lot of them have solar panels,” she said. “And I would be like, ‘Those are cool but they’re really expensive.’”
With a volatile economy combined with the drastic effects of climate change, having solar panels can be a lifeline for low-income homeowners like Rosario and Hunt.
According to an analysis by Princeton University from 2020, the impacts of climate change “are more likely to be felt disproportionately by those who suffer socioeconomic inequalities. In the United States, people of color are found to be particularly more vulnerable to heatwaves, extreme weather events, environmental degradation and subsequent labor market dislocations.”
Solar energy can help alleviate some of those effects by offsetting energy output.
“The average home we serve is offsetting 80 percent of their energy use,” Pendry said. “From an environmental standpoint, that’s the equivalent of 68,000 miles not driven or about four or five cars off the road per year, and that’s just these 10 homes.”
Through an app set up by Southern Energy Management, homeowners can also see how much energy they are saving every month. Many of the families were surprised at how quickly their costs went down.
“I was just shocked,” Rosario said. “I was just like, ‘Oh my god.’”
‘It’s been life changing’
Given the success of the project, the collaborators are cautiously optimistic about growing the program. Of course, because of the grant that the HBCU Clean Energy Initiative received from the JPB Foundation, the 10 homeowners in Greensboro didn’t have to pay anything to have the solar panels installed. In the long run, the organizers know that this isn’t a sustainable endeavor.
“We want to get to a scalable model that’s financially feasible,” Golatt said. “Once we get to a certain level of awareness of free solar, we’re looking at diversifying how to provide to low-income households who maybe just pay 10 percent to make it more scalable.”
Right now, Golatt said that they are aggressively looking for additional funders to do more projects like the one in Greensboro. They also installed solar panels on four homes in Winston-Salem earlier this year. Currently, they’re starting a similar project in Charlotte.
“One of the challenges is that free panels are not sustainable,” said Powell. “But what we’re getting out of this is validation and testimonials so people can see that yes, this stuff is wonderful.”
One of the notable things about this project is the number of partners and collaborations that formed to make it possible. Gene Brown with Community Housing Solutions said that the model could be replicated in other cities if organizations are willing to work together.
“There is a spirit of collaboration and partnership in the way we’re doing things,” he said. “None of us are here to serve our own organization. Instead, we’re focused on the homeowner and how we can provide a greater benefit for them.”
The right partnerships plus increased awareness of solar energy in general could help fund future projects, Brown said.
“Here in Greensboro, the fact that we installed solar panels, that can have a ripple effect,” he said. “This project has gotten some exposure throughout the state. I would think the success of this program has the potential to spread in North Carolina and across the country.”
As far as getting others on board, Hunt said she’s talked to a few of her neighbors about solar panels, but they don’t seem interested.
“They said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be bothered by this,’ or, ‘I don’t want to be bothered by that,’” she said.
But seeing how it’s helped her, she wishes more senior citizens like her would take advantage of the opportunity if they get it.
“I know a lot of people in my church and all over the world are paying these high bills,” she said. “I wish more people knew about the solar panels.”
Rosario said that she told a few of her friends who are interested, too.
“It means a lot especially around here,” she said. “You know, this is not one of the best neighborhoods, but maybe it will give other neighbors motivation, like ‘Maybe we could have them here.’ This is not just for, you know, high-class neighborhoods. Of course, we got them at no cost so it’s something that you would have to save up for.”
And for Rosario who doesn’t plan on selling her home but envisions keeping it in the family for generations to come, she says she’s grateful she had the opportunity to be a part of the project.
“For us, it’s been life changing,” she said.
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