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

A Shenandoah Valley clean energy entrepreneur is on the verge of replicating his solar “barn raising” prototype in communities throughout Virginia.

It was a sense of accomplishment in his own backyard that imbued Jeff Heie with the confidence to invite Habitat for Humanity affiliates statewide to join an endeavor pioneered last spring by his Give Solar initiative with Central Valley Habitat.

Now, workshops, hands-on lessons and financial tools are resources in a how-to guide he is shaping for the 15 affiliates that have expressed a desire to follow Rockingham County’s solar lead.  

“I would have been thrilled to have five affiliates interested,” Heie said about the response to his overture to 40 Habitat executive directors. “Having 15 is a bonus. Hopefully, the project will speak for itself and if we’re successful, other affiliates will come along.”

Give Solar has existed in Harrisonburg for five years. But it wasn’t until October 2020 that Heie’s nonprofit teamed up with Central Valley to co-craft a model program that helps families save money on their electric bills by adding solar panels to their energy-efficient homes.

“It’s a pretty compelling model,” Heie said about how solar energy pairs longtime economic security with a climate change solution. “I feel like we’ve partnered with the right organization to pull these things off.”

John Suddarth, of the Hanover and King William Habitat affiliate north of Richmond, evidently thinks so.

“Jeff has been a great resource for us. He’s like an adviser,” said Suddarth, the board treasurer of his 30-year-old affiliate. “It’s amazing what he’s been able to accomplish in a year. I’m hoping he can be a champion for this across the state.”

In fact, Suddarth is so enthusiastic about linking Habitat homeowners to solar that he and his wife, Sigrid, have vowed to fund the first two rooftop installations in their region.

“Several of us were really excited about this, but we just didn’t know how to do it,” he said. “We told a friend to be on the lookout for a nonprofit that did.”

Eventually, that friend introduced Suddarth to Heie. By February 2020, the two self-described solar geeks were scouting out likely Habitat homes in Hanover and King William counties. Soon, however, COVID-19 curtailed that legwork.    

With that blueprint now back on track, Suddarth is optimistic that a Habitat home in his affiliate’s territory will be outfitted with a solar array by March or April. His colleagues plan to follow the same model Heie has coordinated with Central Valley. That includes having each solar recipient pay $20 a month of their utility bill savings to replenish the seed fund that covers upfront installation costs over the course of their mortgage.

“Right now, our thoughts are, ‘Let’s get one pilot project to prove the concept,’” Suddarth said. “We want to show people it works and that they won’t be using candles at night.”

The first Habitat recipients can serve as ambassadors, showing subsequent beneficiaries that the technology is reliable and saves money.

Fundraising exceeds expectations

Heie began organizing what he has christened “solar barn raisings” even before 2018 when Give Solar became an official offshoot of the New Community Project. The multi-pronged nonprofit is based in Harrisonburg, Rockingham’s county seat.

“Barn raising” is a tribute to the region’s Mennonite and Amish heritage and tradition of mutual aid when neighboring farmers pooled their know-how. On a solar site, it translates to qualified professionals handling rooftop preparation, panel installations and hookups for net metering, but a cadre of versatile volunteers being on hand to tote the panels, lift them to the roof and attend to other chores.

Helping nonprofits transition to clean energy is Give Solar’s wheelhouse. Recruiting volunteers to rub shoulders with professionals not only strengthens camaraderie but also reduces installation costs a tad.

In mid-March, Heie orchestrated the initial project with the Central Valley affiliate in Broadway, a rural community on the outskirts of Harrisonburg in Dominion Energy’s service area.

A crew covered part of the asphalt roof of a new airtight, all-electric duplex with 24 panels capable of harvesting 8 kilowatts of sun power. The two-family house was specifically designed with an abundance of open southern exposure. As well, an overhang below the roof shields the four windows below it from absorbing direct rays from the searing summer sun.

At first, Heie and his colleagues figured each 12 panel system would save each of the two Habitat recipients roughly $40 a month. He is pleased to report that calculations show electric bills actually dropped $54.50 monthly from May through November.

“That’s about 4 cents a kilowatt-hour,” Heie said. “And that feels good, especially in light of what is happening with electric rates now.”

He anticipates savings to be less significant when temperatures drop and daylight ebbs during winter.

Crews completed the second installation during a June barn raising in Harrisonburg, presented as a tutorial for participating representatives from a handful of other Habitat affiliates. Barn raisings three and four are scheduled later this month, weather permitting.

To fund the $5,000 upfront costs for each 4-kilowatt system, Heie and Central Valley Habitat inaugurated a Solar Seed Fund. Their idea was to raise $100,000 to install 20 systems through 2026. That goal was exceeded when individuals, faith communities, businesses, advocacy nonprofits and family endowments rallied around the cause. The seed fund stands at $127,000 — and counting.

Solar United Neighbors (SUN), a national advocacy organization with a strong presence in Virginia, is one of its chief cheerleaders.

At first, Aaron Sutch, SUN’s Richmond-based Mid-Atlantic regional director, envisioned his nonprofit pulling in $5,000 for the fund. But that figure ballooned five-fold, to $30,000, once SUN tapped into its immense statewide network of solar supporters.

Evidently, there was pent-up demand for action.

“A lot of people have talked about the low-to-middle-income model for solar,” Sutch said. “Jeff has long been an ally. This gave us the opportunity to somebody actually doing on-the-ground projects. This is a really cool model.”

Harrisonburg is a close-knit community where the people are doers, he continued, praising a program that basically installs two solar arrays for the price of one.

“We see our relationship with SUN as very strategic,” Heie said. “They have people all over the state willing to get their hands dirty.”

‘A spark to push things forward’

With solid funding at the local level, Heie is now intent on raising money for Give Solar’s Habitat for Humanity Virginia project. His aim with the two-year program is to install pilot solar systems with at least five different Habitat affiliates statewide.

His largest donation thus far is a $45,000 grant from the Harrisonburg-based JustPax Fund. As well, he’s fielded queries from funders outside the region.

“It’s really remarkable that people are doing Google searches and finding Give Solar,” Heie said. “It gives me a lot of hope and belief in this project. It’s heartening.”

A financial boost can help fell barriers that affiliates face. For example, prices of construction materials have skyrocketed because of pandemic-related supply chain challenges. Also, organizing a Solar Seed-like fund at the local level can be daunting.

“Admittedly, it’s labor- and staff-intensive,” Heie said. “But each community has a lot of untapped environmentalists. Here in Harrisonburg, people came out of the woodwork.”

Still, he is exploring other options to fold into the Solar Access Toolbox he is devising for affiliates. Financing possibilities on the table include power purchase agreements, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, carbon offsets, green banks and community solar.

“Habitat is a little behind on what it’s doing about climate change,” Heie said. “We’re hoping Habitat for Humanity International will look at this model and say, ‘This is something good we could integrate and it could make us stronger.’”

Suddarth is itching to kickstart solar closer to his Virginia home, an area served by both Dominion and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative. During his long career as a corporate executive, he became keenly aware of the value of solar power via investments in commercial arrays.

His dream is for his affiliate, which has built 75 houses over three decades, to incorporate rooftop solar into every new Habitat home. First, however, he wants to attend to as many already-built rooftops as possible.

“We have to crawl before we can walk and walk before we can run,” he said.

At this point, he’s grateful to be connected with somebody who can get them up to speed.

“You always need a spark to push things forward,” Suddarth said. “Jeff is a talented person with a benevolent outlook on life who is making something beautiful happen.”

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. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.