Kindred Solar

O n a February morning of brilliant sunshine, ice rained from the trees and slid down the aluminum roof at 43 Button Street. Mounted on the roof’s south-facing side, a 10-kilowatt solar array reflected blue sky. The two-unit home in the Hill, designed and built by students at the Yale School of Architecture, belongs now to Columbus House and provides recently homeless New Haveners with a safe place to live. But the energy produced by its solar panels belongs to 31 small investors, who’ve bought into the project via New Haven Community Solar.

NHCS co-founders Franz Hochstrasser, Matt Moroney and Kwasi Ansu hail not from the architecture school but rather the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Hochstrasser and Moroney met on the first day of orientation and, despite a heated political debate, saw the potential to work together. A class project had them building a prototype of a mobile air quality sensor together, but an existing company was already ahead of them on that product. Still, learning about pollution “hot spots”—areas within the city where pollution is worse—caused the pair to wonder what they could do about them. One obvious answer was to create more opportunities for neighborhoods to invest in clean energy options. When their friend Gioia Connell’s class was preparing to build the Button Street house, they saw a roof that needed solar, and New Haven Community Solar was born. Connell served as a facilitator between the class, Yale administration and the solar team.

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William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum at the Yale Center for British Art

What makes NHCS different from any other company installing solar panels on local homes and businesses boils down to community. In the case of Button Street, Columbus House benefits from a 20-year deal with NHCS that allows them to save on their utility bills, currently by about 24%, with annual inflation built into the contract at 2.8%, “well below the state average,” NHCS says. Small investors, ideally from the neighborhood itself, buy shares of the project—which, “after the first year, … can be bought and sold just like any other stock”—and may reap the rewards as revenue comes in from Columbus House, as well as from the sale of excess electricity back to the local utility and through the sale of Zero-emissions Renewable Energy Credits.

“We’re looking at it as a way to create an engine for economic empowerment so that you’re not just getting these merchant [solar] developers”—or banks or private equity firms—“coming in and taking their cut,” Hochstrasser explains. When neighbors invest in solar power, they own the units that are powering homes in their neighborhood. In addition, the crowd-funded model opens up access to solar energy for those who wouldn’t normally have it, such as renters and nonprofits.

NHCS investors purchased $3 shares in the Button Street solar array, with a minimum investment of $300. Hochstrasser and Moroney would have preferred to sell individual shares, making it possible for pretty much anyone to buy in. But the online crowd-funding portal they used wouldn’t allow it. That and other challenges of structuring a community-funded clean energy project have set the founding officers’ sights on their next project, Raise Green. That organization’s goal will be to create a portal that will acknowledge the quirks and intricacies of a project like this one and make it possible for other communities to get their own crowd-funded solar projects off the ground and on the roof more easily and efficiently.

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New Haven Night Market Vendor Call

NHCS’s initial public offering slightly exceeded their target of $39,900 to cover the Button Street project, with half of the investors coming from Connecticut. They’ve also received support from a CTNext grant, and they’re participating in a social entrepreneurship accelerator program in Hartford as they plan their next steps. At the same time, they’re building a cohort of community leaders in Connecticut who are interested in launching their own projects using the NHCS model.

Connecticut has set a goal of 40% renewable energy by 2030, but Moroney says no one has quite figured out yet how to make that happen. What seems certain, Hochstrasser adds, is that “there’s going to be a great need for much more renewables coming online.” In addition to hammering out their own potential solutions to the need for more renewable energy sources, Moroney says they hope, through their actions, to encourage others to do the same. “Entrepreneurship is really crucial to solving climate change, and we want to demonstrate that young people across the country can actually start their own business and make an impact on reducing social and environmental problems and help to create a different, alternative economy,” Moroney says, “something that’s more conscious capitalism and not just purely exploitative and reckless exuberance of constant growth, because that’s not gonna work.”

The interview over, we walked back to our cars through the ice and slush, commenting on the swings we’re seeing in our winter weather. This is nothing, Hochstrasser says, raising the specter of climate change and its rapidly worsening effects. By 2030, Moroney predicts, NHCS will know whether what it’s doing today has made enough of a difference. And 2030 will be here sooner than you think.

New Haven Community Solar
NewHavenCommunitySolar@gmail.com
www.newhavencommunitysolar.com

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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