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SolarEquity partners with two affordable housing nonprofits to install solar panels

Solar panels sit at the solar farm on White Cross Road in Chapel Hill on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Solar panels sit at the solar farm on White Cross Road in Chapel Hill on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Two local affordable housing nonprofits, EMPOWERment, Inc. and CASA, are embarking on their first solarization projects with the help of SolarEquity, a nonprofit and club at UNC that works to install solar panels on affordable housing developments.

The installation of a 10-kilowatt solar panel system can cost about $18,000 in North Carolina after tax rebates, according to EcoWatch, which may be unaffordable for some lower-income households. A typical 5.4-kilowatt installation would cost about $13,700.

“Because of the high upfront costs of renewable energy, low-income families have the least ability to do something about climate change,” Will Nichols, SolarEquity’s president and founder and a UNC junior, said. “So, it's a serious equity issue, in that respect.”

EMPOWERment, Inc. is currently raising funds for the Pine Knolls Empowerment Affordable Community Housing (PEACH) project in the historically Black Pine Knolls neighborhood of Chapel Hill. 

The development, estimated to be completed in spring 2024, will consist of 10 individual units that will house people who earn less than 60 percent of the area median income.

It will likely cost $80,000 to $100,000 to add solar panels to PEACH apartments after tax rebates, according to Nichols. He said SolarEquity expects to hear back from five grants in the coming months. So far, SolarEquity has raised $7,500 for the PEACH apartments project, Nichols said.

“Although it’s quite a large project to embark on, we thought it’d be a really, really good goal,” Nichols said.

EMPOWERment, Inc. is helping SolarEquity raise money to solarize PEACH apartments, according to Executive Director Delores Bailey.

Nichols said EMPOWERment, Inc. plans to allocate $10,000 of its funding towards solar panels.

“I want to appreciate SolarEquity for being able to work with EMPOWERment,” Bailey said. “I think it is an amazing collaboration because we really appreciate any help.”

Nichols said SolarEquity is working with several solar companies to find the cheapest and most efficient option, including Southern Energy Management, NC Solar Now and Eagle Solar & Light. 

He said SolarEquity plans to install a 50- to 70-kilowatt system with two inverters on the roof of the PEACH apartments.

With CASA, SolarEquity is raising money to install solar panels on Bryan Place, which will be a 16-unit permanent supportive housing project in Durham for those who earn at or below 30 percent of the area median income. Construction on Bryan Place is estimated to be completed in March 2024.

Because the bedroom units and community spaces are all under one roof, the overall cost of the solar panels for the Bryan Place development is much less than that for PEACH apartments, at approximately $15,000 after tax credits.

Solar panels are eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit. However, low-income families are often restricted from purchasing solar energy because they don’t pay enough federal taxes to claim that credit, according to Liz Henke, an advisor for SolarEquity.

“It basically is excluding the very lowest income families in the nation,” Henke said.

Amanda Barbee, the project manager for Bryan Place and real estate developer with CASA, said she never thought she’d be able to install solar panels on an affordable housing project. 

She said rent revenue is not enough to cover all of the costs of building affordable housing, and that solar energy has seemed unattainable for developments like Bryan Place in the past due to limited funding.

“This is my first project working from beginning to end with CASA, and I'm really happy that it's going to have something unique and new,” Barbee said. “That's going to be great for our tenants, great for the environment and just a really exciting project overall.”

By providing affordable renewable energy, SolarEquity has decreased energy burdens and increased disposable income, which Nichols said is a “win-win” for homeowners. So far, SolarEquity has solarized 14 houses and donated 270 solar panels.

Because the residents of PEACH apartments and Bryan Place have to pay for utilities, including energy, the solar panels benefit them directly. The panels are expected to decrease resident energy bills by 40 to 50 percent, according to Nichols.

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In 2019, almost 1.4 million North Carolina household spent at least 6 percent of their income on energy. Those who earned between 50 and 100 percent of the federal poverty level spent about 16 percent of their income on energy bills.


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