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Mom and Preteens Transform Their Neighborhood With Solar – And It Spreads

Begun in a neighborhood, spreading throughout a nation, Solar United Neighbors is helping communities go green.

Anya Schoolman MCs Mt. Pleasant Solar Day, a celebration held in 2009 to celebrate the success of the Mt. Pleasant Solar Co-op. (Photo Courtesy of SUN)

Anya Schoolman’s oldest son Walter was 12 years old when he urged his mom to go solar. He and his friend Diego had just watched An Inconvenient Truth.

Investigating, Schoolman found it would be both expensive and complex. But instead of saying no, she kicked it up a notch. Let’s bring in our neighbors, she said. Maybe together, we can do it.

They created flyers, and Walter Schoolman and Diego Tomas Arene-Morley ran up and down the stairs to knock on the doors of the neighborhood’s row houses.

In two weeks, they signed up 50 neighbors.

This was 2007, and the start of what would become Solar United Neighbors (SUN), launched in the Mt. Pleasant community in Washington, D.C.

T-shirts tie-dyed as part of Mt. Pleasant’s 2009 Solar Day. (Photo Courtesy of SUN)

Now working nationwide with 65 employees and more than 2,000 volunteers, SUN – with Schoolman as Founder and Executive Director – is on the leading edge of a growing movement, one of the most experienced groups serving low-income single families.

It has helped more than 9,300 homes link up to solar panels, with over 74,000 kW installed – and is still going strong.

“Listening to my son and his friend. That’s why this whole project happened,” Schoolman said.

  • Mt. Pleasant homeowner Gigi Matthews stands next to his newly installed system in 2016 (Photo Courtesy of SUN)
    Mt. Pleasant homeowner Gigi Matthews stands next to his newly installed system in 2016. (Photo Courtesy of SUN)

Kicking into High Gear

SUN is a 30 Million Solar Homes coalition partner, funded by The Rockefeller Foundation. The coalition advocates for incentives and removes barriers through enabling policies aimed at making one in four U.S. homes solar-powered.

Participants gather at the 2022 Indiana Solar Congress at Hamilton Southeastern Intermediate Junior High. The day long event brought together solar supporters from across the Hoosier State. (Photo Courtesy of SUN)

When achieved, this will create 1.7 million new jobs and save American families tens of billions of dollars annually through lower electricity bills.

When the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) went into effect in August 2022, SUN started a free national help desk to provide information about costs and financing possibilities for installing solar panels, and offer free roof reviews.

A Historic Opportunity

This work is directly supported by Invest in Our Future (IOF), a donor collaborative which The Rockefeller Foundation funds and is fiscally supported by its subsidiary RF Catalytic Capital.

IOF’s goal is to help unlock federal government financing to support traditionally marginalized communities transition to clean energy sources and achieve their climate priorities.

“The IRA presents a historic opportunity to accelerate decarbonization. But without intentional coordination, structural barriers can impede equitable IRA implementation in historically marginalized and underserved communities,” said Rachel Isacoff, Director, Economic Equity Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation.

“SUN aims to address the challenges of IRA implementation by helping communities navigate the complexity of the various funding streams.”

Is solar a meaningful weapon in the fight against climate change in the United States? Researchers resoundingly say yes.

Solar Panels in the Climate Change Arsenal

The electric power sector is among the country’s largest contributors of greenhouse gases, representing 28 percent of all emissions. Solar heating and cooling systems can provide about 80 percent of the energy used for space heating and water heating needs, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the national trade union for the U.S. solar industry.

The IRA also has a potential to be a game-changer, Schoolman said. “Affordability is a huge part of the IRA’s focus, and it is really central to what we are doing also.”

Marjorie and Michael Blaine of Tucson, AZ., stand next to their solar system installed in 2021 (Photo Courtesy of SUN)

While the IRA was being drafted, SUN and its 30 Million Solar Homes coalition partners pressed for a “direct pay” provision. That means those who cannot use the 30 percent tax credit provided for going solar—including non-profits, municipalities, churches, and families who don’t earn enough to make that viable—could get a check instead of a tax discount.

The coalition won the battle for tax-exempt and government entities, but not for individuals.

So, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, SUN has launched a pilot program with a community land trust in Duluth, Minnesota, to use “direct pay” to allow solar projects to be financed at lower costs.

Here’s how it works:

  • 1The local nonprofit community land trust will take on the solar project, receiving the 30 percent “direct pay.”
  • 2In turn, it will lease the panels to homeowners and effectively lower the cost of the project by 30 percent.
  • 3Homeowners will save more on their monthly bills than they have to pay, and own the solar project after about five years.
  • 4“Figuring out how low-income households can take advantage of the 30 percent tax incentive is critical,” said SUN’s Minnesota Director Bobby King. “Without that, going solar for them will be practically impossible. We are working on setting this up so that it could be used by any nonprofit anywhere in the country. including a nonprofit lender.”

Starting From Scratch

When Schoolman began this work, solar was still a niche interest. Resources were not readily available for neighborhoods that wanted to go solar. “It was like leaping into a void,” Schoolman recalled.

“We started having these meetings in my living room, and that part was really fun. There was definitely a feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just getting to know my neighbors, and learning with them.”

A 2014 meeting in Schoolman’s living room to discuss going solar (Photo Courtesy of SUN)

Arene-Morley, who still serves on the SUN Board of Directors, notes that Mt. Pleasant was a very diverse and close community as he was growing up. “People carpooled and babysat each other’s kids and ate meals together, and that also made this possible.”

Schoolman didn’t plan to start a non-profit.

“But what we were doing felt contagious,” she said. “We created the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative, and then started getting requests from all over D.C. We were completely volunteer-driven.”

Why it Matters


    of greenhouse gas emissions come from the electric power sector


    of energy used for space and water heating could come from solar


    have been linked to solar panels through SUN

That changed after “one volunteer showed up at my house two or three days a week, sitting at the kitchen table.

“A year later, she said, ‘Now you have to start paying me.’ It was all slow and unintentional. The Rockefeller Family Fund was our first fiscal sponsor.”

The project also left its mark in more personal ways.

“It completely shaped what I believe I can do,” said Arene-Morley, who now lives in Providence, R.I.

“It made me optimistic about what can happen in local government and by organizing with my neighbors. I ran for city council in 2022. I lost, but I will run again.”

Diego and Walter at a Mt. Pleasant solar event in those early days. (Photo Courtesy of SUN)

Working Toward the Whoosh

Enormous progress has been made in the last decade and a half in helping communities go solar. Still, Schoolman acknowledges days when she is worried. “All we are thinking about is, can we make change fast enough? Will we get there in time? All of us have those days.”

Arene-Morley credits the IRA with “incentivizing peoples’ behavior. If it saves money, people will follow, and that includes politically diverse communities.”

Schoolman also remains overall optimistic. “What gives me hope is that people forget change isn’t linear. Sometimes something gives way overnight, and all of a sudden, there is a different trajectory. Solar keeps getting cheaper, and electricity gets more expensive. So suddenly, it will be like – whoosh.”

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