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December 16, 2021

Closing the equity gap: This innovative technical assistance program is driving solar+storage projects across frontline communities

By Elana Knopp, Senior Content Writer

In this first of a two-part series, Edison Energy sat down with Seth Mullendore, Vice President of Clean Energy Group, a national nonprofit advocacy organization working to accelerate an equitable and inclusive transition to a resilient, sustainable clean energy future. Mullendore, who will take the helm of CEG as its new President and Executive Director on January 1st, currently oversees projects ranging from customer-sited solar and battery storage to the replacement of power plants with clean technologies. He works with policymakers, project developers, industry, advocates, and community and environmental justice groups to advance clean energy policies and projects, with a focus on achieving greater access to solar and battery storage technologies for under-resourced communities.

Part I

Clean Energy Group (CEG), a national nonprofit focused on the equitable expansion of clean energy, recently announced that it has awarded more than $1 million in grants to community-serving organizations advancing solar PV paired with battery storage to benefit frontline communities.

The grants have supported the work of 86 affordable housing and nonprofit community organizations, representing 93 solar+storage projects across 22 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. To date, the grant awards have resulted in the completion of 30 resilient solar+storage projects in low-income communities and communities of color, with more projects in the pipeline.

CEG first launched its Technical Assistance Fund grant program in 2014 as part of the organization’s Resilient Power Project, established in response to the devastating power outages resulting from Superstorm Sandy. The Project is targeted to the deployment of solar+storage to power essential services during extended power outages and to reduce the economic burden of energy costs in vulnerable communities.

“In the Northeast post-Sandy, we saw a lot of movement to incentivize and at least explore community microgrids, and a few states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts pumped some money into that,” said CEG Vice President Seth Mullendore. “They were all looking into energy resilience to different degrees of success, but the efforts lacked adequate provisions to ensure equitable access to innovative solutions. Frontline communities most impacted by Sandy were least likely to have access to backup power. That was especially true for emerging clean energy solutions to provide backup power like solar and battery storage.”

The Technical Assistance Fund specializes in issuing small, targeted grants, averaging about $10,000 each, to support solar+storage projects in the early stages of exploration. The grants fill a capacity gap among community-serving nonprofits and affordable housing providers that do not have the in-house expertise to evaluate solar+storage and lack the financial resources to engage experienced technical services providers.

The small grants have had an outsized impact, representing millions of dollars of clean energy investment in underserved communities. As an example, CEG awarded a $9,000 grant to Jubilee Housing and New Partners Community Solar in 2018 for a technoeconomic feasibility assessment of solar+storage for the Maycroft Apartments, an affordable housing development in Washington, DC.

The resulting analysis was used to secure a $65,000 grant from the Pepco Foundation to support the battery storage portion of a $327,000 solar+storage system. The completed project now delivers monthly energy savings to the residents of Maycroft and supports a resilience center providing reliable access to lighting, cooling, food storage and preparation, and charging for phones and medical devices during outages.

A CEG technical assistance grant helped support efforts to verify the feasibility of the Resilient Native Generations project, launched by the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center. The Center is seeking to implement strategies that provide environmental and cultural resource protection and emergency response during wildfires and power outages.

The grant facilitated support from local government officials and partnership organizations for the museum to become a designated resilience hub and generated capital funding from multiple federal and private sources.

“The California Indian Museum and Cultural Center is a great project,” Mullendore said. “They’re on the edge of a wildfire zone, so they are working in the communities that have experienced wildfire-related power shutoffs in California. The site is preparing to serve as a cooling center and a safe place where people can go if they do lose power.”

CEG’s engagement and outreach around the benefits of solar+storage has resulted in interest from members of the Navajo Nation, whose territory covers nearly 18,000,000 acres across northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah.

“Many members of the Navajo Nation are living in energy poverty and some live too far off the grid to be connected,” Mullendore said. “Many households have been dependent on diesel generators. We’re in the early stages of working with a community to create a model so that more remote residents can gain access to solar+storage. We all know that energy storage has come down in price by a lot but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still expensive, so there’s still this huge barrier to entry–particularly for low-income communities.”

In addition to project-based technical assistance, a portion of the grant funding also supports knowledge-building for nonprofits new to solar+storage.

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