September 2017

Appalachian Voices’ “Solarize Wise” Program: Energy Savings and Job Creation Appalachia

To protect and improve quality of life, Appalachian Voices launched Solarize Wise, a Southwestern Virginia program that is working to bring affordable solar energy to the region.

by Lydia Graves, Solarize Wise Program Coordinator

Appalachian Voices is a nonprofit, community-oriented organization working to promote a shift to a clean energy economy in Central and Southern Appalachia. We work to protect quality of life for everyone. For those of us in Southwest Virginia, this means protecting the environment and creating sustainable jobs that allow people to thrive in their communities without compromising their health, identity, or the beauty of the region. A big part of this project is making smart energy solutions accessible to people from all walks of life in this region.

The world’s poor bear the results of our collective failure to address issues of climate change and energy issues. Those who live in coal communities have been economically devastated by the coal industry.  The environment has been largely stripped of the resources necessary for other economic activities like agriculture. Ironically, the economic and environmental destruction Appalachians experienced at the hands of the energy industry now contributes to the rising cost of electricity, making it difficult for many people to make ends meet. This is especially true for people in older homes.  

To protect and improve quality of life, Appalachian Voices launched Solarize Wise, a Southwestern Virginia program that is working to bring affordable solar energy to the region. In the last several months, more than 45 people in Wise County, nestled in the mountains of southwest Virginia, have taken the first step toward going solar by signing up for a free assessment of their homes, farms, or  businesses.

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Solar thermal hot water system on the roof of the Duffield Regional Jail. Photo credit: Christine Gyovai. Courtesy of Appalachian Voices.

The response from the community to Appalachian Voices’ outreach has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve heard from people that they were interested in solarizing their home, but they didn’t know of any businesses serving the area before we launched Solarize Wise. Other people who have looked into solar in the past but couldn’t afford it are now revisiting the idea because the price has dropped so dramatically, and it makes financial sense for them.

Solar energy can mean saving money, having power in a storm, and affording electricity in a rural area. Energy solutions like solar that allow for energy independence tap into the history and heritage of Appalachia, home to people known for their self-reliance and resourcefulness. On a bigger scale, programs like Solarize Wise help us to maintain our economic identity as an energy producing region as the market changes. 

Similar “solarize” programs are taking off around the country. They serve to connect a municipality or community group with a local company to perform all the solar installations for people who buy solar systems during the solarize campaign. The installer is able to offer lower prices because they get bulk purchase discounts on materials and solar equipment. It also helps the solar company save money on marketing and advertising.

A Virginia-based company, Sigora Solar, was selected to partner with Solarize Wise after submitting a proposal detailing the company’s experience, licenses, products and competitive pricing model. Solarize Wise participants are being offered a price about 20% below regular market rates for solar.

Now is the time to jump on board with solar, but the new and unfamiliar can sometimes be daunting. We tell people, “If you’re a solar energy novice, don’t worry. Sign up for a free home assessment and Sigora will walk you through the basics and help you decide is solar is right for you.” Our current program ends on September 29 and we encourage citizens to get learn more by visiting the website, SWVAsolar.org/solarize.

Transitioning to solar energy saves consumers and taxpayers money, no small matter in Appalachia. In 2013, Sigora helped save Southwest Virginia taxpayers money by installing a solar hot water system on the Duffield Regional Jail. That project came in 15% under budget and was finished ahead of schedule, resulting in a savings of up to $40,000 dollars a year. Now Sigora is helping Wise County area residents save money with Solarize Wise.

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Solar thermal hot water system on the roof of the Duffield Regional Jail. Photo credit: Christine Gyovai.

“We at Sigora feel incredibly honored to be part of the Solarize Wise program,” said Jon Proffitt, director of business development and commercial sales for the Virginia-based company. “We’re excited to see the solar momentum build in and around this area of the state. There is a lot of potential for solar as a driver of economic development and consumer choice. Sigora has a tremendous amount of passion for helping our friends and neighbors transition to a clean energy lifestyle while saving money. We are eager to get started installing solar in in Southwest Virginia.”

Solarize Wise has deeper impacts than the personal benefits to homeowners. The Solar Workgroup is committed to creating local workforce opportunities including internships and apprenticeships. Sigora Solar shares those goals and is offering opportunities to some of the local students who are already being trained as solar industry professionals at Mountain Empire Community College.

In 2016, MECC was honored by the Virginia Community College System for the development of the mobile solar trailer known as SPARC-E, which stands for Solar-Powered Alternative Renewable Clean Energy. It’s a 5-kilowatt solar system built and designed by MECC students. Complete with a battery storage capacity of 900 watts, SPARC-E brings electricity wherever it’s needed, providing the power source for medical services at the Wise County Rural Area Medical clinic or fun community events like a sound stage and bouncy house at the 2017 Southwest Virginia Solar Fair.

MECC Instructors Roger Greene and Bryce Shular are also on board with Solarize Wise and making inroads to create local jobs for their students. “The solar power installation courses we offer at MECC are designed with the intent of preparing our students for jobs in an industry that is taking hold in our region,” Green says. “My hope and the hopes of the other faculty involved in this is that as solar power does becomes a viable option for employment in our area, we will already have an educated workforce capable of filling the need for professional installers. On the front end, I see projects like SPARC-E and Solarize Wise as the needed impetus for providing the public with access and a more clear understanding of solar power.”

As the energy economy evolves and solar continues to grow, Southwest Virginia needs to be ready. Several counties in the area are pursuing the SolSmart Solar Ready certification to let businesses know Southwest Virginia welcomes them to open up shop. Nationwide, the solar industry now employs more people than oil, natural gas and coal industries combined, according to a 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Energy. Workforce development and certification training are crucial parts of Southwest Virginia’s economic goals.

Solarize Wise is a project of Appalachian Voices, the Wise County Cooperative Extension, the Wise Norton Chamber of Commerce, and People Inc.

Lydia Graves

Lydia Graves is from Bristol, Va. she graduated in 2014 from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC with a degree in Sustainable Development. Rooted in the history of Appalachian activism, she is passionate about building healthy mountain communities that retain identity and autonomy. She now currently serves as an Americorps VISTA member at Appalachian Voices in Norton, VA.

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