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BROADWAY, Va. — On a radiant March afternoon, as hints of spring teased the Shenandoah Valley with its promise of renewal, a crew of limber Virginians affixed a small solar array to the asphalt roof of a brand new home on Lee Street.

Combined, the 24 panels harvest 8 kilowatts of solar power. Yes, that’s just a smidgen in the vast energy picture. But it’s not the “how much” that matters here. Instead, it’s the “who” and the “why.”

Two Rockingham County nonprofits committed to relieving the energy burden of low-income families are partnering to share a just-launched Solar Seed Fund. It’s designed to cover the $5,000 upfront cost of installing a 4-kilowatt rooftop system. The idea is to raise an initial $100,000 to outfit 20 area Habitat for Humanity homes with photovoltaic panels over the next five years.

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Watch the solar crew install panels on the Broadway home’s roof. Credit: Give Solar / Courtesy

The one-story, airtight, all-electric duplex in Broadway is the first of what Give Solar and Central Valley Habitat for Humanity foresee as a long succession of Solar Seed successes. Organizers are hopeful it could become a model statewide.

Homeowner Amber Cox moved in around Christmastime with her 6-year-old son, Ian, after living with friends for years. During her working-at-home lunch break on March 19, she popped outside to watch her half of the roof be outfitted with a dozen panels.

“To have our own space is very special,” said Cox, a billing specialist for a healthcare provider. “I’m impressed and thankful they’re connecting solar. This is the complete package of blessings.” 

The 35-year-old is euphoric about the dent she will make in her Dominion Energy electric bills by generating her own power.

Amber Cox outside her home as installers assemble solar panels on her roof. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan / Energy News Network

Solar Seed creators figure each 4-kilowatt system will save Cox and other Habitat recipients roughly $40 a month. Homeowners are committed to direct half of that savings back to the fund — to replenish it and cover the upfront installation costs over the course of their mortgage.

How to construct lower-cost, energy efficient homes that remain affordable for families watching every penny is a balancing act for David Wenger, executive director of Central Valley Habitat for four years. Mixing his organization’s knowledge of housing with local solar expertise was the solution to cracking that code.

“My common sense tells me that we needed to be on top of this,” the retired math teacher and Broadway native said on a visit to Cox’s house. “It seems like we’ve gotten the mathematics right.”

But it isn’t just arithmetic.

Jeff Heie, center, helps lift and carry one of the two dozen solar panels to be installed on the duplex’s roof. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan / Energy News Network

Jeff Heie, who heads up Give Solar, imbues this Habitat installation with a sense of joyful community spirit. From his southside perch near a ladder at the edge of Cox’s roof, he directs a backyard ballet of sorts. A pair of on-the-ground volunteers unpack the boxed panels, each roughly 3 feet by 5 feet. Then, one at a time, precious cargo poised between them, they tread prudently across the lawn for the lift to the scaffold and a handoff to the quartet atop the house.

On high, it’s a flurry of measuring tapes, battery-operated drills and dexterous human hands as each panel is positioned precisely on a mounting rack, wired to the next panel, connected to the microinverter, then secured with bolts.

“We chose the word intentionally because it’s very much connected to where we are geographically. Yes, it’s a bit of a gimmick, but I want to raise consciousness about solar. It’s about getting people who know nothing about solar up on a roof.”

Jeff Heie, Give Solar

Heie has organized what he has christened “solar barn raisings” since even before 2018 when Give Solar became an official offshoot of the New Community Project, a multi-pronged nonprofit based in Harrisonburg, Rockingham’s county seat. “Barn raising” is a tribute to the region’s Mennonite and Amish heritage and their tradition of mutual aid when neighboring farmers pooled their know-how.

“We chose the word intentionally because it’s very much connected to where we are geographically,” he said. “Yes, it’s a bit of a gimmick, but I want to raise consciousness about solar. It’s about getting people who know nothing about solar up on a roof.”

Helping nonprofit organizations transition to clean energy has always been Give Solar’s wheelhouse. Recruiting volunteers to rub shoulders with professionals not only strengthens camaraderie, but also reduces installation costs a tad.

Reflecting on his trajectory to launching Give Solar, Heie credits time spent in Manchester, England, while his wife earned a law doctorate and his seven years as a carpenter back in the United States. Europeans taught him how enormously climate change threatened the planet and carpentry schooled him in climbing ladders, being at ease with heights and wielding hand tools.

“I finally feel like I found my career at the ripe old age of 53,” he said with a laugh. “I think of it as a social enterprise because I understand the stakes of what we’re up against.”

His philosophy meshes with Jonathan Lantz-Trissel, the project manager with Green Hill Solar who joined Heie on Cox’s rooftop. The Harrisonburg-based company is an ally, willing to minimize its own profit margins by offering a price break to endeavors such as the Habitat pilot.

“Both of us have roots in social justice,” Lantz-Trissel said, referring to Green Hill owner Eric Beck. “For the most part, it’s been tough to make inroads on the belief that solar is for people of means. This is a great opportunity and a niche to fit our mission.

“If that means a little less profitability, so what,” he continued. “We’re interested in our local community, not being millionaires.”

Harrisonburg engineer and Central Valley Habitat board member Johann Zimmermann nudged Heie toward linking solar with local families. Years ago, he was a pioneer helping to equip area Habitat homes with solar water heaters. As prices for photovoltaics dropped precipitously, Zimmermann voiced his new pitch.

Zimmermann, whose structural engineering team has served marginalized communities around the globe, also designed the two-family house where Cox lives. While the expansive south-facing roof is a boon for the array, he carefully crafted the overhang to shield the four windows below it from absorbing direct hits from the searing summer sun.

While projects financed by the Solar Seed Fund might not halt a housing shortage or a climate crisis by themselves, he said their power is in uniting people of different backgrounds.

“In general, the valley is conservative politically,” Zimmermann said. “But there’s a lot of giving. We have no problem finding volunteers.”

Indeed. Four of those willing givers had gathered in Broadway early that afternoon to help Heie and Lantz-Trissel complete the installation in the predicted two-hour timetable.

Even Mother Nature lent a hand. Brilliant afternoon sun made a day that dawned with a light frost feel a bit summerlike. Fierce morning winds that could’ve turned panels into dangerous glass sails also calmed.

The solar crew works to install the second set of panel’s on the roof of the Broadway duplex. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan / Energy News Network

Cox will begin benefitting from her net-metered, “homegrown” electrons in a couple of weeks once an inspection is completed and a few other loose ends are tied up.

Doug Hendren, a woodworker and veteran of half a dozen barn raisings, is sorry a prior obligation prevented him from assisting with the Habitat pilot. On rides around town, he loves showing visitors roofs he has solarized.

“Good heavens. Can you think of something more fun than being together with friends for an outing like this?” asked the retired orthopedic surgeon who moved to Harrisonburg in 1996.

Orthopedics is “carpentry of the human skeleton,” he explained, so he’s at ease with the engineers, farmers, builders and stray college students who tend to gravitate to barn raisings for the mental and physical stimulation. 

Tying the Habitat for Humanity brand with solar is an opportunity to squelch the myth that solar is solely for the rich, he said, adding that he’s especially proud of Heie for expanding the reach of Give Solar. 

Hendren is already clearing his calendar for the next barn raising. And all the ones that follow. 

“I’m like a kid in dirt. It’s just delightful, like being at a big dance and getting to know your neighbors, too.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.