Here Comes The Sun

Guest Correspondence

I love hearing success stories—especially those that involve our Gulf Coast region. I thought I would illuminate your morning with a story that shines a light on solar energy and the power of neighborhoods.

A couple of years ago, the League of Women Voters of Florida brought a troubling picture to our attention. Florida—the Sunshine State, mind you—lagged at number 17 in the U.S. for solar-energy installations. Experts said we should be in the top three. By comparison, New Jersey, with less than half of our population, had about five(!) times as many solar rooftop systems. Florida did rank high in another measure, though: We were sixth among states for polluting emissions.

The League wanted to help more homeowners across Florida go solar by propagating the promising model of “solar co-ops.” These neighborhood-based cooperatives enable communities to affordably go solar by leveraging volume purchasing and competitive bidding. They also build passionate solar advocates in the process.

To do this, the League partnered with a national group—Solar United Neighbors—that successfully coordinated co-op networks in several other states. While Florida already had a couple of fledgling co-ops supported by the group, the new partners shared a bold vision to go bigger: create a statewide nonprofit program that could scale the co-op model, starting on the Gulf Coast. We saw the potential, and Gulf Coast Community Foundation was in for $30,000 in seed money. The Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy also committed start-up support.

Solar United Neighbors of Florida launched in the summer of 2016 with the hiring of a state program director. Its Sarasota Solar Co-op followed in January 2017. In Sarasota alone, about 70 homeowners have gone solar so far, together investing nearly $1.3 million into solar energy and accounting for an expected carbon offset of 25 million pounds. Each household, by the way, should save about $44,000 on energy bills over the lifetime of their systems. Another 130 households that joined our local co-op could go solar in the future.

By all accounts, Sarasota’s was the most successful co-op in the state last year. But it’s certainly not the only one. The network now has 35 co-ops in markets from Pensacola to the Upper Keys. That far exceeds the initial goal of six when we were first approached for start-up help! These co-ops accounted for 10 percent of the new residential solar in Florida last year. And the original staff member that our grant helped hire has grown into four full-time positions assisting communities around the state. This progress is fantastic, and it will only continue.

From a funder’s standpoint, here’s what made this grant so successful:

A strong partnership. The League of Women Voters wanted to tackle an issue but couldn’t do it alone. Solar United Neighbors wanted to expand its model but required local support and outreach. Regional funders saw a creative, free-market approach to put power in the hands of our citizens. Everyone committed to working together.

Regional impact. This project directly addressed regional priorities identified in the research scan that Gulf Coast commissions every few years and makes available to grant applicants and our entire community. It offered environmental and economic benefits while incentivizing innovation in our region.

Systemic change. At Gulf Coast, our Board believes the best returns on our community investments come from targeting systems rather than addressing symptoms. Solar United Neighbors of Florida presented a low-cost opportunity to promote sustainable energy and give residents more choices. It was a solution that could be implemented locally and replicated broadly. We’ll take that every time.

Exceptional execution. Put simply, the partners in this project have put in the work—passionately—that it takes to be successful. They’re producing steady growth, engaging an army of volunteers, and providing results that can be measured. They should be commended.

Before writing this column, I looked back at a copy of the cover letter we sent with our original grant award two years ago. Next to my signature, I wrote “Congratulations! We are expecting great results!” To the good fortune of our region and state, this bright idea is exceeding everyone’s expectations. Shine on.

Dr. Mark S. Pritchett is president/CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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