Harrisonburg nonprofit looking to expand solar’s reach across Virginia

Volunteers with Give Solar help install panels on a house on Virginia Avenue that Habitat for Humanity built. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Heie)

By Eric Gorton, senior contributor

A Harrisonburg nonprofit wants to expand its efforts to make rooftop solar systems affordable to low-income homebuyers across Virginia.

GiveSolar already has had some success doing that in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, where it has partnered with Central Valley Habitat for Humanity to put solar panels on a pair of duplexes, one in the county and another in the city, in the past year.

Now, with help from Habitat for Humanity Virginia and Solar United Neighbors, GiveSolar has launched a two-year program to recruit Habitat affiliates in other parts of the state to at least consider putting solar systems on homes they build or renovate.

Jeff Heie, director of GiveSolar, said 15 affiliates have expressed some interest and one — Hanover and King William Habitat for Humanity — is already pursuing a pilot project on one of its houses.

“I’m trying as much as possible to make it something that they want to experiment with and pursue,” Heie said. “Habitat affiliates are pretty strapped for resources. Sometimes adding another complexity to their building process is not always desirable.”

To ease the process for the Habitat affiliates, GiveSolar will pay the costs of building a pilot system on one home and will provide information on how to finance future installations, something Heie has dubbed a “Solar Access Toolbox.” He also has hosted Zoom presentations to discuss the process with Habitat affiliates.

Building a pilot project is a low-risk opportunity for the affiliates to “dip their toes in the water” and understand the process, said Heie, who is researching four or five methods Habitat affiliates could use to finance the projects if they decide to go beyond the pilot project. Information about those methods will be posted on the GiveSolar website along with information on creating a solar seed fund, the financing method being used by Central Valley Habitat.

From February to October, GiveSolar raised $127,000 for the fund, which will enable Central Valley Habitat to install solar panels on all new houses it builds for the next five years. People who purchase a home with a solar system will pay $20 a month back to the seed fund over the term of their mortgage so funds will be available for future installs.

They also will pay electricity bills to their utility, but not as much as they would without a solar system.

Heie said the owner of one of the Central Valley Habitat for Humanity homes with solar panels saved $54.50 per month on electricity from May through November.

“We’re trying to achieve long-term economic security for these families. These solar systems last 25-30 years. To be able to reduce their electricity bills by $50 a month for that period of time, I feel like that’s a really powerful and significant accomplishment,” Heie said.

Another benefit for the homeowners, he said, is avoiding some of the price increases from utilities such as Dominion Energy and the Harrisonburg Electric Commission. HEC recently raised its rate 1-cent for each kilowatt hour billed because of an increase in the cost of natural gas used to generate electricity.

“When the price of electricity goes up, homeowners who have solar systems, they experience that price increase, but to a much lesser degree than people who don’t,” Heie said.

The home Heie has been tracking this year produced more electricity than the homeowner used during the summer, giving her a credit going into the winter. 

A house on Virginia Avenue that Habitat for Humanity built has solar panels as a result of the partnership with Give Solar. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Heie)

With GiveSolar providing the fundraising and the knowledge to do the installs, deciding to move forward with the project following the pilot was a “no brainer,” said David Wenger, executive director of Central Valley Habitat for Humanity.

Wenger said providing solar systems on its homes fits nicely with the housing agency’s mission to be good stewards of the environment and community friendly.

The systems also make the homes more affordable, another goal for Habitat.

“We look at sustainability after they move into the house, the affordability after they move in. Not just the mortgage,” Wenger said.

Hanover and King William Habitat for Humanity has been considering adding solar panels to homes it builds or renovates for a couple years, said John Suddarth, a Hanover County businessman, solar advocate and treasurer of the Hanover Habitat affiliate.

He said he was happy to meet Heie, who has the technical and organizational expertise needed to build a pilot project there.

Suddarth said he and his wife have pledged to pay for the first two solar systems in the Hanover area. He also said he is eager to show how much money homeowners will save and expects that could be as much as $1,000 a year while also benefitting the environment.

Suddarth said he hopes solar panels will become a standard part of future homes Hanover and King William Habitat for Humanity will build.

Heie said the project to recruit Habitat affiliates could extend beyond two years if he can partner with affiliates that will take on some responsibilities he is handling. 

“I’m hoping that we’ll get at least 10 affiliates to go through this pilot project process and two years seemed like an appropriate amount of time to be able to pull that off,” he said.

He also said anyone is welcome to use the resources on the GiveSolar website, not just the Habitat affiliates.

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