This nonprofit is helping low-income communities harness the sun’s energy

When Tyrone Evans moved into his Washington, D.C. neighborhood about 25 years ago, he remembers seeing black smoke coming from the smokestacks just down the street.

But a lot has changed since he came to the neighborhood, including his own primary source of energy. Just a few years ago, an outreach coordinator from the nonprofit GRID Alternatives came to his door and asked if he’d be interested in having solar panels installed on his roof.

Evans jumped at the opportunity to reduce what sometimes amounted to a $100 electric bill during the winter months. Because Evans qualified as low-income, GRID Alternatives installed solar panels on his roof for free in 2016, slashing the cost of his electric bill.

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“Sometimes I’ve got no bill and sometimes I’ve got a couple dollar bill,” Evans said. “It hasn’t been expensive. I’ve been able to manage it very well.”

Nicole Steele, the executive director of GRID Alternative Mid-Atlantic, said the nonprofit designs its solar systems to cover “somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of the usage.”

The total cost of a 5-kilowatt solar panel installation can cost thousands of dollars even after a 30 percent solar tax credit, according to

So how can GRID Alternatives provide this service for free?

Steele explained that the nonprofit receives funding from a number of different sources including the city’s Solar for All Program, the Department of Energy and the Environment, and the Department of Employment Services, among others.

D.C. enacted its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in 2005, pushing the city’s retail electricity providers to rely on more renewable energy sources. The RPS has been amended over the years and currently requires the local utility provider to generate 50 percent of its power with clean, renewable energy. If the provider doesn’t meet those standards, it’s charged a compliance fee.

In 2016, the city established the Solar for All Program, which aims to provide solar electricity to 100,000 low-income households and reduce their energy bills by at least 50 percent by 2032.

Steele said renewable energy incentives help residents like Evans, who has seen his energy bills go from $100 or more to $4 and sometimes $2.

“This is an opportunity to put additional money back into people’s pockets where they can use in other areas,” Steele said.

On top of that, any excess energy his panels produce goes back into the grid.

Steele said GRID Alternatives is also working to build community wealth by training and hiring people within the neighborhoods they serve.

She added that getting on the roof and getting hands-on experience in the solar industry helps local job trainees “see what it’s all about and how they can potentially enter into this new clean energy economy and be part of this revolution.”

Read more stories from Alix Hines on Circa.

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