By Will Nichols, e-Rotaract Club for the Environment

I began volunteering at the Durham Habitat for Humanity Restore the summer after my freshman year of high school. It was a wonderful experience. Not only did it satisfy my parents urging me to get out of the house, but it aligned directly with my first academic passion, creating affordable housing.

I continued to work with Habitat for Humanity throughout my high school years and loved every second of my on-site work. Despite the heat and North Carolina’s unbearable summer humidity, I learned to be handy and had the privilege of meeting the very families who would later move into the homes. During this same time period, I developed a fledgling passion for sustainability and found my niche within renewable energy. I launched my school’s first ever sustainability branch of student government and worked tirelessly to make my campus a more sustainable and convivial place.

Upon enrolling at the University of North Carolina (UNC), I was introduced to Liz Henke, a local Rotarian with a goal of installing rooftop solar on Habitat for Humanity homes across the state. I jumped at the chance to support her and the cadre of renewable energy enthusiasts at East Chapel Hill Rotary.

During those first couple of months, I was lucky to secure a donation of 260 panels from Strata Clean Energy, enough to solarize 17 Habitat for Humanity homes in Hillsborough, NC. It was a really rewarding moment. I felt that I was truly making an impact on my local community by both mitigating carbon emissions and allaying the crippling energy burdens experienced by low-income families across the state.

As time passed, Liz Henke, Alan Young, and Brian Kileff continued to support me and eventually motivated me to found HabitatSolar, a UNC club dedicated to the installation of rooftop solar on Habitat for Humanity homes across the state. We worked at active build sites, continued to source solar panels, and developed a funding platform to fund new projects. 

Looking to deepen our impact, HabitatSolar applied for 501(c)(3) status under the new name of SolarEquity. Our mission was to empower North Carolina communities through the solarization of affordable housing by building valuable partnerships to drive an equitable and sustainable energy transition. No longer were we restricted to only working with Habitat for Humanity but could expand our portfolio of partners to affordable housing developers across the state.

Flyer for SolarEquity

SolarEquity facilitates access to clean and renewable energy for the communities most heavily burdened by climate change.

Over the last year, our team of 25 students has blossomed. We have divided our group into five separate committees: networking, solar equipment, marketing, grant writing, and finance. Students work 5-10 hours per week to accomplish their goals and propagate the SolarEquity mission.

Through grants and corporate donations, we have raised over $100,000 for the installation of rooftop solar on a 10-unit apartment complex reserved for low-income families in Chapel Hill. The PEACH apartments are Chapel Hill’s first-ever affordable multi-unit complex with zero-debt funding. The development will provide ten affordable, varied-layout units for households earning 30-60% of the average median income (AMI), reducing their monthly utility costs. Providing solar power to renters represents a significant commitment to social justice and racial equity, aiming to reduce energy burdens for community members who need it most.

Throughout the process of our solar development work, we have become fluent in policy, attuned to marketing strategies, capable in grant writing, experts in project design, and stewards of our community. We are now working to install rooftop solar on a local church and community center located in low-income neighborhoods on the outskirts of Chapel Hill and have already secured solar panels as well as the majority of funding. These projects have given us the opportunity to engage with families and thought leaders who enable our education at UNC – Chapel Hill. Because of this communication, we have learned to better assess the issues plaguing the community and to develop curated solutions that will make a true impact.

After graduation, the current group of seniors plans on assuming positions on the board of advisors to foster the success of future generations and the enhancement of the Chapel Hill Community. My work with SolarEquity has been the single most rewarding, enjoyable, and educational part of my academic career, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the backing of Rotary. I have found lifelong friends, a lifelong passion, and a desire to support those around me. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Rotaractor Will Nichols is graduating in 2024 with a double major in Business Administration and Environmental Studies. The SolarEquity executive team includes an executive team of UNC students leading committees that work on grant writing, marketing, networking, solar equipment, finance, and fundraising. They bring a wide array of disciplines including economics, public policy, and sustainability.