Solar panels on the roof of a home. • Photo by ECOSS.

Eleven families in King County are starting off 2020 as a new kind of a homeowner, ones that now get their electricity from the sun.

Thanks to a project called “Solarize the Land Trust”, these homeowners, all low to moderate income, were recently able to install residential solar systems at their homes at either very little or no cost to them. This was a result of a partnership between Homestead Community Land Trust and Spark Northwest. The latter is a Seattle based nonprofit whose goal is to create communities powered by locally-controlled clean energy.

“As housing has become more expensive in the Seattle area, and really across the state, it’s limited who has access to clean energy and energy efficiency,” said Spark Northwest project manager, Jill Eikenhorst. “By helping these low income homeowners install solar, we can help lower their overall housing costs. The Puget Sound region is not the sunniest part of the country, but solar still works great here. Germany has the most solar per capita of any country, but they get 15% less sun than we do.”

Eikenhorst said collaborating with Homestead was one of the key reasons for the success of this project. Under the 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. Last summer, Homestead and Spark Northwest offered free solar workshops to provide information and group purchasing discounts for the homeowners. And to further assist about 10% of the families with limited English proficiency, the project turned to “Environmental Coalition of South Seattle” (ECOSS) to ease communications barriers and help these families navigate the program.

“Unfortunately, people of color are disproportionately renters rather than homeowners as well as less affluent,” said ECOSS Communications Manager, Will Chen. “Meanwhile, solar panels typically cost around $10,000+ to buy and install. Solarize the Land Trust lowers the financial barrier and bridges knowledge gaps to make solar panel ownership more accessible, especially to our most disadvantaged communities. And ECOSS’ approach of building relationships and trust through shared language and culture results in authentic engagement with communities of color and solutions that benefit everyone involved.”

Four foundations, including All Points North Foundation, The Red Che Foundation, Tudor Foundation, and Union Bank provided grants to help cover 65-100% of the residential solar systems as part of this project. Puget Sound Solar, the company selected to install the solar systems, also gave many hours of free labor for the homeowners. According to the company’s sales and design engineer, James Crawford, being part of this kind of community initiative is the right thing to do.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for these homeowners, who could not otherwise afford the energy saving and environmentally friendly products,” said Crawford. “We met one homeowner through Solarize the Land Trust who wanted to print out the solar information in different languages like Mandarin and Vietnamese so he can share it with all of of his neighbors & co-workers!”

Will Chen from ECOSS shared similar experiences being part of this campaign.

“Families are excited to own solar panels! One of the homeowners we worked with is so enthusiastic that he is spreading the word to his community and labor union in multiple languages,” said Chen. “Grants from the project covered around $8,000 and the savings generated from the solar panels will make up the remaining cost in only a few years.”

According to Spark Northwest, a 4KW solar system, the average size in this project, will cover half the average electric bill in Seattle. That’s about $400 in savings annually, and more as electric rates go up. Spark Northwest project manager, Jill Eikenhorst said to pave the way for more solar powered homes in Western Washington, there’s a need for much more than philanthropic funds.

“Government incentives for clean overwhelming gone to higher income families so we need to structure them in different ways and provide more funding so that low and moderate income families also benefit,” said Eikenhorst. “There are many more homeowners in Homestead and other community land trusts, so we hope to raise more funds and expand the program to get them solar too. We could also explore energy efficiency options, like efficient heating and insulation, for community land trusts. This is definitely just the beginning for us.”

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