Rotarians have added a powerful tool that makes housing more affordable AND slows climate change: Solar Habitat, a new initiative under Rotary’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity. Participating families will achieve big savings on monthly electric bills and prevent hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon emissions over the useful life of their panels. By adopting Solar Habitat as a project, your Club will discover a new way to engage young people as passionate volunteers.
ESRAG’s Renewable Energy Task Force has teamed up with Habitat International’s building science specialist Molly Berg on a manual https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TkZegGwcgt6CqaZB3mLWVJdkx1mImzeg/edit
offering field-tested advice, case studies, and links to rebates and tax credits available by state across the US. “This partnership is natural: there’s a Habitat affiliate and a Rotary Club in almost every town,” says Dr. Liz Henke, a member of North Carolina’s East Chapel Hill Rotary, who played a crucial role in pilot-testing the idea.
“It’s huge for the family and huge for the environment,” she explains. “The typical Habitat family’s monthly electric bill in our part of the US is $100. Our first Habitat solar installation in 2020, a 5.1 kW array, is saving the family $61 a month. The more electric costs rise, the greater the savings will be. The latest estimate is for a 5.4 kW array to prevent over 300,000 lbs. of carbon emissions over 30 years, the equivalent of planting 4,000 trees or 350,000 miles not driven by a gas-powered car.”
“Habitat is a world leader in low and moderate income (LMI) housing development,” Liz Henke points out. “When Habitat shows that solar is feasible, other LMI developers will follow its example.”
Orange County Habitat, the affiliate serving Chapel Hill, already builds energy-efficient homes. Adding solar boosts these houses towards Net Zero Energy operation, as Joey O’Brien explains in his article in this issue.
Monthly energy bills can grab a huge proportion of low-income families’ monthly incomes. Utility shut-offs endanger their health and credit. Reducing monthly electric bills supports Habitat’s core mission: keeping housing affordable for low-income families. Having solar panels increases the house’s resale value and incentivizes homeowners to choose electric appliances. But the big up-front capital costs of solar – about $15,000 for a 5.4 kW array in the continental US – make adding solar a formidable challenge for Habitat projects. That’s where Rotarians’ ingenuity and advocacy come into play.
“Habitat monthly mortgage payments cannot exceed 30% of the family’s monthly income,” Liz Henke explains. “Habitat has to eat the difference. With land and building material costs rising so steeply, everyone is hitting that 30%.” For that reason, increasing the mortgage to cover some of the solar capital costs usually isn’t an option. Most Habitat families don’t owe enough income tax to qualify for traditional US solar tax credits that refund part of the cost.
Liz and fellow Rotarians including Aur Beck of ESRAG’s Renewable Energy Task Force have compiled practical advice in the Manual on a number of ways to finance solar Habitat projects. The East Chapel Hill Rotarians have written successful grant proposals – one county grant provided $95,000 – and persuaded a regional supplier, Strata Clean Energy, to donate panels. Other resources include Rotary District Grants, utility company rebates, community solar projects, crowdsourcing, and power purchase agreements where investors pay for the solar project, take the tax credits, and sell the power to homeowners at lower rates than the local utility.
Another strategy Liz Henke suggests is asking companies who want to achieve net-zero to finance solar installations for Habitat and apply the renewable energy credits to offset their carbon emissions. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by the US Congress in August includes $1 billion to make affordable housing more energy efficient, and ESRAG members will be eagerly researching how Habitat can access the new federal grants.
Rotarians and Rotaracters have already helped Habitat affiliates complete successful solar projects in four states: North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois, and Massachusetts. The Solar Habitat partnership is catalyzing creative ways to promote resilience and energy independence – both increasingly needed as severe storms damage the grid and heat emergencies cause more and more rolling blackouts. The mixed-income Weavers Grove development in Chapel Hill is a great example. It will include 100 Habitat homes, all with solar panels. The Solar Habitat team worked with architects to orient houses to maximize the efficiency of rooftop solar. The development will also have a community center with solar-powered refrigerators and batteries so residents can ‘keep their insulin safe, and plug in cellphones and laptops,” Liz Henke explains.
Climate and energy justice projects captivate young leaders by demonstrating Rotary’s relevance. East Chapel Hill Rotary recruited a University of North Carolina (UNC) student, Will Nichols, as an intern. He fell in love with the Solar Habitat idea and was instrumental in winning financial and in-kind donations from UNC alumni and Strata Clean Energy. ESRAG members are encouraging him to contact the eRotaract Club for the Environment to ask them to adopt Solar Habitat as a project. Habitat builds and Rotary tree-planting events are excellent opportunities to engage student volunteers and show them Rotary practicality, fellowship, and fun in action.
Read the manual and dive in to Solar Habitat, a marvelous way to increase energy justice and implement a powerful climate solution. Email Aur Beck, firstname.lastname@example.org, chair of ESRAG’s Renewable Energy Task Force, or Dr. Liz Henke email@example.com of the Rotary Club of East Chapel Hill if you have questions. They will be glad to help.