Bringing Clean Energy to Working Families with Community Power

Gripped with eye-opening statistics I watched a panel session from VERGE 16 called “Energy equity: How community power empowers communities” hosted by Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell. “The poorest 20 percent of our neighbors in this country are paying the most for electricity and 10 percent of their entire household income is going to keep the lights on.” Moore believes these statistics are evidence enough for a call to action and Groundswell is her vehicle for carrying it out.

Groundswell is a nonprofit accelerating clean energy opportunities for working families and low-income communities. In particular the organization taps into the collective purchasing power to bring community solar to neighborhoods. “We believe that clean energy is a necessity, not a luxury; we’re all in this together; and it’s not ok to leave our neighbors behind.”

community power

The panel discussed lessons learned and ideas for expanding access to community power (such as community solar) for families who may not have the means to tap into traditional funding mechanisms. On the panel was an impressive line up of energy finance, green building and sustainability leaders: Trenton Allen, Founder and CEO of Sustainable Capital Advisors, Kimberly Lewis, Senior Vice President responsible for community engagement at USGBC, and Harold Mitchell, Representative for the State of South Carolina.

Trenton Allen is a leader in energy and infrastructure financing. He posed the question: How do we make finance work for the poor? Wealthy homeowners are able to write off solar through their tax investments while the poor aren’t able to participate in these same clean energy opportunities. The structure of these incentives doesn’t work for the poor since they often don’t have enough to write off at year-end. It’s also difficult for the poor to get financing because residential loans require credit scores out of reach.

Allen suggested that we develop a more realistic proxy to incentivize more adoption of community energy projects. For example, instead of using credit scores – which are capped at 600 or 650 effectively eliminating participation by the poor – he suggests using instead as a proxy those who pay the utility bills. This would enable a wider participation from the community.

There are greater opportunities for community solar if assets are pooled by location rather than by individual. For example, we can use landfills, farms, or other community assets and have people subscribe to the program. This focuses the funding on the strength of the pool and allows greater access for the community (and also gets more businesses involved in creating clean energy opportunities).


Kimberly Lewis works with USGBC to bring more diversity to the sustainability movement by examining obstacles and finding ways to remove them. She believes the solution is two pronged: combining leadership and collaboration with business and sustainability. After realizing that the “trickle down” economics was not positively affecting low and moderate-income families, she began looking for alternatives.

“At the council we’ve been saying now: partnership is the new leadership and we can’t be everything to everyone. Internally I’ve been challenging us to collaborate in new spaces and we need businesses to be part of that solution with us.” We have to be open to thinking about the interests of the entire community and less on ourselves.

There is also much fragmentation between the environmental and social justice movements. However, by tapping into similarities within these movements, we can come together and begin to think about our neighborhoods and focus on common goals and desired outcomes. If we focus on the desired outcome of whole and healthy communities then we can start there and work together.

Harold Mitchell is State Representative of South Carolina. He spoke about a sustainable development project in Spartanburg South Carolina called ReGenesis. They project started with devastated communities at superfund and brownfield sites with medically underserved families, inadequate housing, and low unemployment. By building a coalition between these communities and local government, they took a $20,000 EPA small grant and leveraged that into a $300 million redevelopment project.

“We took that opportunity to see all the ills within the community. Because first and foremost, before you can get to sustainable you have to really dive into the problems within that community,” said Representative Mitchell. They treated migrant healthcare and focused on tax credits to build energy resiliency through solar, renewable energy, and geothermal. They transformed a landfill less than 50 feet from residents into a renewable energy resource.

Working with one of the STEM academies in South Carolina they’ve developed a renewable energy training program which has helped people move from living in public housing to becoming home owners. The focus of this project has been to turn around negative environmental impacts into opportunities for community self-sufficiency.


To summarize all of this amazing work, Moore recapped the panels insights. “Putting lower income communities at the center of the financial model is critical. We’ve got to come together and the power and capability to do that – to support communities – is here in this room,” said Moore. “Making one project happen is a powerful example that is a light on the hill but to be able to really build community power and leverage growth in clean energy and sustainability, build wealth, and empower communities economically takes scale.

To answer the question of how to take a project to scale, Allen emphasized the importance of refocusing investments from the single customer to the strength of the pool. This would provide the community with greater access to capital and buying power.

Moore noted that building scale also takes market capacity and representation from the community. The key to achieving this, suggested Lewis, is to identify anchor institutions in the community, bringing representatives from the social and environmental justice movements and collaborating on finding common definitions of success. Mitchell emphasized the importance of using best practices and developing concrete examples that can be used for replicating successes and delivering benefits to the community.


Author: Kathryn Thomsen

Founder of Hundredgivers, a nonprofit supporting and accelerating sustainability initiatives benefiting local and global communities. Kathryn is a social entrepreneur, consultant, researcher, writer and urban farmer. She collaborates with individuals, organizations, and businesses to develop climate change solutions, clean energy, and sustainability strategies and programs.

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