In late 2000, when it became clear that George W. Bush, not Al Gore, was going to become President, my friend M. told me, “I fear for the future of the planet.” An expert on sustainability from before sustainability became a thing, M.’s frustration with the status quo had hit a tipping point. Her thinking was ahead of her time. She needed to act, to do more to change people’s perspectives.
Rob Pinder is somewhat younger, but in the fall of 2013 he was feeling a similar sense of frustration. As an atmospheric scientist with a baby on the way, he worried about the glacial pace of progress nationally on moving beyond fossil fuel so we can slow climate change. In October, he had read former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s book on civic engagement – about the messy but necessary process of citizens engaging directly with local government to make things better.
At that time, Pinder also started reading about cities in the Pacific Northwest where citizens had created local programs to get solar panels on as many rooftops as possible – the beginning of the “Solarize” movement. If they could do it, he thought, why not here where we actually have sunlight? Then he learned that “Solarize Asheville” was organizing.
So he put up a website – “Solarize Carrboro,” – and petitioned the town to help him get something going. Carrboro had outreach infrastructure in place because of the WISE (Worthwhile Investments Save Energy) energy efficiency program it had administered, and town staff, like Town Environmental Planner Randy Dodd, helped him and encouraged him to move forward. Soon after that, NC WARN contacted him about the “Solarize Durham” program they were spearheading. The path ahead was becoming clearer.
Fast forward six months, countless discussions with neighborhood leaders and homeowner associations, solicitation of bids and vetting of vendors, more than 100 signups (so far), and not least the birth of Pinder’s daughter, Solarize Carrboro is officially a thing.
On Wednesday, April 2nd, I attended the first of two planned Solarize Carrboro kickoff sessions (the second will be Monday, April 14th at 7pm in Carrboro Town Hall). An audience of about 75 had turned out to learn whether and how they might affordably plant solar panels on the rooftops of their homes. The program is open to anyone in the Town of Carrboro or in the 27516 zip code, and the signup period runs until May 30th. The gist of the “tiered subscription” business model underlying Solarize Carrboro is this: the more people sign up, the steeper the discount for everyone.
At the kickoff, we heard presentations from the NC Solar Center, solar installers Yes! Solar Solutions and Southern Energy Management, who are working cooperatively, and two banks offering solar loans – Self-Help Credit Union in Durham and a national bank called Admirals Alternatives. We heard about how the program works and how much a typical system might cost; and about financing options and the generous state and federal tax incentives that are in place, at least until the end of 2015 (NC) and 2016 (federal). We also heard about how the dramatic drop in solar panel prices over the last few years has made these programs possible all over the country.
The energy in the packed room, the intelligent questions, the enthusiasm for literally taking our power into our own hands, got me pumped. We already have solar at our house, but maybe we could add more! I took notes furiously. After the meeting I got to chat a little bit with Kathy Miller from Yes! Solar Solutions and Melissa Malkin-Weber from the Self-Help Credit Union, who were both friendly and helpful. I started to feel more hope. A few days later I had coffee with Rob Pinder and got even more inspired. Here’s a local guy who got an idea, talked with some folks, and got the ball rolling on something lasting and good. And the packed room was evidence that people care. And that they care enough to DO.
Will Solarize Carrboro, with maybe a couple hundred initial subscribers, make a dent in our collective hurtle toward climate disaster? Maybe, maybe not. No one program can. But it would be a waste not to tap into the abundant sunlight that blesses us, and at the same time displace the power that pollutes. And Solarize Carrboro, Solarize Durham, Solarize Raleigh, Solarize Asheville, and Solarize all those other cities and towns all over the country are not just helping a little. They’re setting examples for, and inspiring, countless other actions as well.
Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” My friend M., who now works 40 hours a week on sustainability issues and lives her values full time in her remarkably energy efficient, solarized, sustainable home too, keeps this quotation as her email tag line, to remind herself to keep on keeping on. We all should too.