Utopia Hill grew up in suburban Chicago dreaming of being a “planeteer,” understanding and exploring the cosmos.
It was perhaps only natural then that Hill began her career in engineering aircraft engines for General Electric, then was recruited by renewable developer Invenergy and became its first woman engineer.
Today, Hill’s mission still involves the forces swirling in outer space — specifically, harnessing the sun’s power to create energy for marginalized communities, including places like Maywood, the suburb just west of Chicago where she grew up.
And the financial and logistical challenges involved in achieving that goal may be — if less dramatic — as formidable as those faced by a planeteer.
Hill is CEO of Reactivate, a partnership between Invenergy and investment firm Lafayette Square that aims to connect low-income and environmental justice communities with community solar — which allows customers to own a share of a solar project rather than installing their own array. Illinois’s 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act creates incentives for this purpose, but tapping them and rolling out projects has thus far been difficult.
In February, Reactivate announced that enrollment is open in Illinois for three community solar arrays for low- to moderate-income subscribers. It is part of the Illinois Solar for All program created by state law that aims to make solar accessible to low-income people.
Reactivate and Solstice Power Technologies, the company handling subscriptions, estimate that these three projects will deliver about $12 million in savings to subscribers over 20 years and enough power for about 1,200 households.
Solstice was founded in 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by women of color. CEO Steph Speirs noted that she “was raised by a single, immigrant mom who worked minimum wage jobs and struggled to pay the bills through no fault of her own.” Like Hill, she said that more diverse leadership in the clean energy sector is crucial to make clean energy more accessible to customers.
“There are so many challenges when trying to dismantle the exclusionary aspects of the current energy industry,” Speirs said. “I really admire Utopia’s leadership and am excited to collaborate with her to build a world that views clean energy as a human right, not a privilege for the few.”
‘Trust is your most valuable currency’
Community solar can be much more accessible than individual solar arrays, since it avoids the complications of building on-site and the need for upfront capital. In theory, it’s easy for someone to subscribe to a community solar project and reap the savings on their bills, with virtually no risk.
But the wildly popular community solar program created by Illinois’ 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act saw the benefits going mostly to larger developers, with relatively few projects involving individual people as subscribers. A glut of interest meant incentives were used up quickly and many would-be community solar projects were never built.
Hill and other solar advocates hope that under Illinois’ revamped community solar program, and through the efforts of participants like Reactivate, community solar can actually benefit people who have not yet had the chance to participate in the clean energy shift, including those most harmed by the fossil fuel economy. It’s a challenging mission.
Among other things, potential subscribers in low-income communities are likely dealing with numerous demands on their time and attention, and they may be skeptical of energy-related proposals especially given the state’s problem with predatory marketers offering alternative retail electric service.
“Community organizing is an underappreciated skill in the energy industry, but it is a skill that requires experience to do constructively and respectfully,” Speirs said. “When you work with under-resourced communities, trust is your most valuable currency. At Solstice we understand that we aren’t entitled to that trust. We have to earn it, and we can only move at the speed of trust.”
To seek subscribers, Solstice works with partners and “ambassadors” in communities, including business, government and nonprofit entities.
“We don’t parachute into communities,” Speirs said. “When people hear about community solar through a stranger, it can seem too good to be true. Our partners help us spread the word that community solar is a credible product that provides customers with guaranteed savings on their electric bills with no upfront cost, while also reducing emissions.”
The program offers larger savings than community solar subscriptions available to residents who don’t meet income qualifications. To qualify for Reactivate’s projects, customers must earn below 80% of the area median income, which would be $83,350 for a family of four in Chicago, for example, according to Solstice’s website.
Illinois Solar for All promises at least a 50% savings compared to utility rates on the supply portion of one’s electric bill. Solstice is also offering an enrollment bonus to subscribers.
As the developer and owner of a community solar array, Reactivate earns the right to sell renewable energy credits at a high price for the solar it generates, lowering the price that subscribers are charged for energy from the array and boosting their savings in comparison to regular utility supply service.
When Hill started at Invenergy in 2005, she was focused on “layout and design for wind projects — having an understanding for wake and wake losses and turbulence,” factors that among other things helped make sure turbines were not placed too close together.
Hill started an affinity group called “Black and Brown @ Invenergy,” bringing together colleagues of color in the still predominantly White, male renewable energy industry.
During the pandemic, Hill became passionate about making renewable energy accessible to communities of color and other marginalized communities not only as a career choice but as an energy option and way to protect public health. Growing up near coal plants and a landfill, Hill said she was always aware of environmental injustice, but the pandemic was “a big awakening.”
“I had a lot of friends who had various types of respiratory issues, but you don’t necessarily think about the correlation” with pollution, she noted. “During Covid, seeing people I cared about die because of those respiratory issues really struck a chord with me. Energy justice, and just transition, all started to come together.”
An elusive pipeline
Reactivate launched in January 2022, as the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act took effect. For starters, the partnership is planning to develop six community solar projects in Illinois, including the three currently taking subscriptions, and one in New York, all tapping state incentives.
“The vision is of all parties taking a close look at the type of impact we can create in this sector, especially for low- and moderate-income and energy transition communities,” Hill said. “It’s impact capitalism — how can we use the capital structure we have to create positive outcomes in communities?”
Speirs frames energy justice as developing access to both clean energy jobs and clean energy.
“We need to create pathways to leadership for people who grew up experiencing poverty, energy insecurity, or climate disasters, so that they can bring their own life experiences and perspectives to shape the development of an equitable, just, and human-centered future energy sector,” she said.
Reactivate aims for its projects to be built by people trained through workforce programs created by the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act and the Future Energy Jobs Act, meant to create clean energy jobs in environmental justice and low-income communities. Illinois Solar for All — created by FEJA and augmented by CEJA — offers extra incentives for solar constructed by women- and minority-owned firms and installers with diverse workforces.
“We are looking at workforce development not only so people learn how to be installers — with technical skills, operations and maintenance — but can take those skill sets and become entrepreneurs themselves,” Hill said. “How are we supporting minority and women contractors? We are stepping back and taking a more holistic look at this sector as a means not only to create the necessary energy transition but also to provide and reactivate communities that have historically seen disinvestment.”
Since the Future Energy Jobs Act’s passage, creating a solar jobs pipeline in marginalized communities has proven difficult. Solar developers have complained they have no clear way to connect with trainees, and graduates of solar training programs have not necessarily found good jobs. Hill acknowledged the challenges, and said Reactivate is working to connect with solar job training programs.
“A lot of our time has been spent listening and building relationships and understanding from the various training providers who currently exist, even working on curriculum,” she said. “Also, ensuring we’re in conversations with the contractors for our projects and other contractors as well to make sure the training that’s being implemented aligns with the outcomes they’re expecting to see.
“I don’t know that it’s gotten any easier, but the effort in building those relationships should facilitate a better process for anyone trying to work in this space.”
Reactivate does not plan to do residential rooftop solar, but the partnership is likely to delve into energy storage and electric vehicle charging projects, Hill said, “making sure EV charging infrastructure is deployed in an equitable way, we want to ensure [low-income] communities aren’t left behind.”
Reactivate is planning to expand into other states with incentives for community solar, especially in marginalized communities. Hill said the economics of solar generally would not make their work viable in states without incentives, though individual partnerships with utilities or electric cooperatives could provide exceptions.
“A lot of the locations where the energy burden is the highest for individuals are the same states that do not have community solar legislation passed,” she noted. “Our hope is that the policymakers in those states will work toward ensuring their constituents as well can benefit from this opportunity.”
Hill’s work is now perhaps focused more on policy and finances than the technology she explored early in her career, but she said “it’s not necessarily a shift.”
“The technical aspect still comes into play because the industry is maturing, especially when we look at new technologies like energy storage and EV charging,” she said.
“It’s having that balance, understanding the technology and regulatory side, and as a human being understanding the social benefit of the technologies, so you are not extractive, so you are going in as a partner.”
As a mother of three, Hill also hopes Reactivate’s work inspires a younger generation.
“If [young people] see their family or friends constructing these projects in their community, and with their understanding of climate change, they might say ‘I want to do that, too’” — just as she imagined being a planeteer.
“I think we have a tremendous opportunity right now, as a country and as an industry. My hope is we will all look at this with a lens on equity to make sure the benefits of this transition really, really provide opportunity to everyone in America. This transition really needs to be for everyone, because our planet depends on us working together.”