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'It can be equitable': Norfolk company brings solar power to low-income neighborhoods

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Posted at 11:40 AM, Mar 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-22 16:23:51-04

NORFOLK, Va. - As prices increase across the board, the cost of energy is at the top of mind.

Folks are looking at their monthly bills wondering if there is a better way to save. Many families are turning to solar energy and adding solar panels to their homes.

For those unable to afford the upfront cost of solar panels, Norfolk Solar is offering a new option. They have made it their mission to install solar at no cost to local businesses and non-profits in Qualified Opportunity Zones.

According to the IRS, Federally Qualified Opportunity Zones are economically distressed communities where new investments can be eligible for preferential tax treatments.

Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion Church on Johnson Avenue in Norfolk falls within this zone. Now when people walk by, they don't just see centuries-old brick - they see a head-turning display of solar ground mounts.

"They will come by and stand on the fence. Watching [and asking], 'Pastor what's going on?' They were excited to see it," said Pastor Brandon Praileau. "Let's face it - for many people in this community, they don't know what solar is. They've never seen any solar panels; have no idea how solar even works. It begins to introduce them to concepts and things that can be beneficial to them."

The church is located in Huntersville, which is within the federally designated qualified opportunity zone. And because of that, it's the perfect fit for the work that Norfolk Solar does.

"We are a fund that puts solar on buildings and disadvantaged neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods in Hampton Roads. And we do that using investor money, where the neighborhood gets the solar and their utility bill goes down, and the investor gets their money back," said founder Ruth Amundsen.

Amundsen and fund manager Alden Cleanthes connected with Pastor Praileau more than a year ago. He said he had never considered adding solar power to the church.

"My first reaction was, 'This can't be true; this has to be fake.' There was a time when I did not believe that this was going to happen," he said.

"Pretty much 100% of the time, people are think we're a scam to start with," Amundsen said. "It really helps that we've already done installs, where we can tell them, 'Hey, this site put in solar with us. They really like it; you can go talk to them. We're completely transparent about the financial model [and] how much money the investors are making."

The Norfolk Solar team accesses qualified neighborhoods, builds trust and finds a way to make solar power work - even if the roofs are in poor condition, like at Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion.

News 3 reporter Erin Miller asked Pastor Praileau what helped build his trust in Norfolk Solar.

He said, "Really, it was just taking the time to talk and to explain what the process was, what solar was, how it would be beneficial for us, and kind of what the pathways for us were. And that gave me a certain level of trust to be able to say, 'You know what? Maybe this is something that we can do.'"

Cleanthes said the benefits outweigh the cons.

"Mostly, this is doable, and it's easier than you think. And it doesn't have to be such a difficult process or an overwhelming payout at almost every site that we've done. Not only is it free to them - as in there's no cash out of pocket - but we are offering them a discount right out of the gate," she said.

Pastor Praileau said the church has been solar for a year now and has saved between 20-25%.

In about eight years, the church will be fully self-sustaining. Pastor Praileau said saving money is a benefit, but the example set to the community is priceless.

"In the context of the Huntersville area, it says that solar is not just something for the more affluent, that it can be equitable - that there are multiple sectors of people who can benefit from from solar energy," he said.

Norfolk Solar also has a contract with their installer where they are required to hire residents of the opportunity zones as permanent employees.

According to their website, the benefactor of the QOZ fund has generously supplied and deployed nearly $1 million of no cost solar installations within the qualified opportunity zones.

News 3 also looked into the options for people who do not live in one of these communities. According to EnergySage, as of March 2022, the average solar panel in Virginia Beach cost $2.98/W. They report, "given a solar panel system size of 5 kilowatts (kW), an average solar installation in Virginia Beach, VA ranges in cost from $12,665 to $17,135, with the average gross price for solar in Virginia Beach, VA coming in at $14,900. After accounting for the 26% Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and other state and local solar incentives, the net price you'll pay for solar can fall by thousands of dollars."

If installing solar, homeowners can get a 26% tax credit against their federal income tax liability, which is applied to the money owed to the government.

There's also Virginia Net Metering, so if a home is producing more than is consumed, that energy goes back to the grid. For each kilowatt hour sent back, a credit is earned.

BrightSuite, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, said these can be incentives for people. Overtime, they said the solar panel systems will pay for themselves.

"Our process is, you reach out to us via a form on our website, or customers also call in. And once they fill out that form, they get assigned a solar energy adviser. That energy adviser meets with them and ask questions about their home to better understand things, like the age of their roof, whether or not they have an HOA, if there are certain areas where they do or don't want the solar panels to go. And then we pass it over to our design engineering team and they put together a solar system design. They calculate how much those solar panels are going to produce, how much it's going to save the customer on their monthly electric bills, and of course, what it's going to cost," said Katie Taylor, Energy Solutions Program Manager.