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Earlier this year, UNC’s student-run club SolarEquity partnered with EMPOWERment, Inc., an affordable housing nonprofit, to raise $100,000. These funds will be allocated to install solar panels on the rooftop of the upcoming PEACH apartments, a complex sponsored by EMPOWERment.

The PEACH apartments offer rental units for low-income workers and their families. The complex will be located in Pine Knolls, a historically Black neighborhood in Chapel Hill.

Delores Bailey, executive director of EMPOWERment, said the nonprofit applied for Orange County’s Community Climate Action Grant, a program designed to support climate change mitigation action.

EMPOWERment received approximately $61,000 from the grant to install solar panels, Bailey said.

Will Nichols, the founder and president of SolarEquity, said that over the course of 10 months, SolarEquity raised an additional $39,000 through donations from corporations, members of the community and those directly supporting the organization.

According to a press release from SolarEquity, the implementation of solar panels for generating electricity will help lessen the financial burden for PEACH tenants by decreasing their utility bills.

Nichols said the solar panels are expected to save tenants about $460 annually.

“The savings that these families will experience is incredible,” Bailey said. “Every little bit helps. Every little bit helps — if it's nothing more than $1 a month, that changes your utility bill. It's worth it.”

Over the next 30 years, Nichols said, the solar panels will mitigate about 1.5 million pounds of carbon.

Last semester, SolarEquity members visited the project site and measured tree heights and distances to determine whether the solar power system would be productive for the environment, Nichols said. He said no more than three trees would have to be removed from the site.

“Not only are we seeing environmental benefits stemming from adopting renewable energy, but we're also making the material impact on these people who live in the Chapel Hill community by decreasing their energy burdens and decreasing the amount of money that they would have to otherwise spend on energy,” Nichols said.

Through the federal Inflation Reduction Act, the partnership of SolarEquity and EMPOWERment will receive 30 percent of their investments back in tax credits.

Bailey said EMPOWERment will allocate these funds to the solarization of the Midway Business Center, another EMPOWERment-owned establishment dedicated to supporting women- and minority-led small businesses.

Bailey said the PEACH apartments will begin construction sometime this month. She said the building process will take 10-12 months and the solar panels will likely be installed by January 2025.

SolarEquity works with NC Solar Now to create a solar proposal that includes information about the number of panels needed, where they will be placed and the amount of energy they will generate, Kaya Johnson, the executive director of networking for SolarEquity, said. The organization also plans to install rooftop solar panels on St. Joseph Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which would decrease the church’s energy bills, Nichols said.

Johnson said she hopes SolarEquity can also start to install solar panels for other projects in the community.

“With working with EMPOWERment and grant writing and fundraising for this project, we've just learned a lot more in the process, the importance that community partnerships have, especially in the nonprofit sphere,” she said.


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