More and more people realize the environmental benefits of renewable energy, which produces no fossil fuel emissions. In the past, switching to clean energy sources meant putting solar panels on your roof. But what if you have a shady roof, or you own or rent an apartment? What are your options? Two local Montgomery County Certified Green Businesses, CleanChoice Energy and Neighborhood Sun, are providing solutions to residents and businesses of Montgomery County and beyond that are both sensible and innovative.
Finding the process of installing solar panels on his own roof to be overly complicated, Tom Matzzie founded CleanChoice Energy in 2011 to create a solution. Knowing that many people don’t have the right type of home, upfront capital, or time to devote to such an undertaking, he set out to make it easy and convenient for people to switch to 100 percent clean energy. As a result, CleanChoice Energy has helped thousands of households get access to renewable energy.
CleanChoice offers electricity paired with Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), which represent a specific amount of electricity produced and delivered to the power grid by a renewable resource such as wind or solar. Anyone with a power bill in Montgomery County can switch to 100% clean energy that is from regional wind and solar. Customers, including local businesses, have several different options, including 100% solar, 100% local wind and mixed wind and solar products.
While RECs have been in the marketplace for a while, community solar is a relatively new innovation that allows customers to purchase solar credits from a “solar farm.” No roof or equipment is required, and there are no upfront fees. Anyone who pays an electric bill can subscribe to a nearby solar farm in their service territory. A subscriber is essentially assigned a block of solar panels to match their electricity usage and receives bill credits on their utility bill based on the amount of power produced by the farm. During sunny months, a subscriber might get more bill credits than they can use, so the surplus is simply credited to the account and compensates for the cloudy months when insufficient energy is generated. The power produced by the solar farm flows directly into the electricity grid, and the Maryland Public Service Commission regulates the program.
The first company in Montgomery County to offer community solar was Neighborhood Sun. Founded in 2017, they see themselves as a local champion with a mission to build stronger communities and bring the benefits of solar to everybody, not just a select few.
Neighborhood Sun’s first project to go live was the Panorama project, which is in the Pepco area. Founder and CEO Gary Skulnik explains that unlike some solar farms that are built on greenfields or former agricultural land, Panorama sits atop a 25-acre landfill in Ft. Washington, MD, giving life to an abandoned and forgotten parcel of land. It is the largest residential community solar project in the United States.
Neighborhood Sun launched a solar farm in Oxon Hill that is on the roof of a large storage facility and up to one-third of the subscriptions are earmarked for low- or moderate-income (LMI) households, with savings as much as 20% below utility rates. And they will soon be taking subscriptions for a project in the Potomac Edison/First Energy service area with savings of up to 30% for LMI households.
CleanChoice Energy first started community solar in Minnesota almost three years ago. In Montgomery County, they have two solar farms that are being subscribed right now. One of the solar farms is seeded with pollinator-friendly grasses and flowers to attract bees and support nearby farms.
State law permits both businesses and residents to participate in community solar. Subscriptions are currently available in the BG&E, Delmarva and Pepco service areas, and are expected in the Potomac Edison/First Energy service area in the coming weeks. For a full list of community solar options for Montgomery County businesses and residents, see Solar United Neighbors. Note that some projects are reserved for residents only, but interested customers should contact the community solar provider directly to confirm eligibility.
The City of Takoma Park, which has long purchased 100 percent wind power for its operations, wanted to take the next step and increase the amount of renewable energy that was being used by residents and businesses. As Gina Mathias, Sustainability Manager for the City explains, “We realized that shopping for renewable energy providers is confusing and time-consuming, so we wanted to make the switch to renewables as quick and easy as possible.”
So early in 2018, the City issued an RFP asking all the renewable energy suppliers listed in Maryland to provide a fixed rate for 100% renewable electricity for new customers in Takoma Park for the duration of the sign-up period. Preference was given to companies with significant green or environmental business practices such as those certified through the nonprofit B Lab, or other sustainable or ethical business certification. “Certified B Corps” as they are referred, meet an extremely high bar for the benefits they provide to the environment, society and community, and they are recognized by the Montgomery County Green Business Certification Program. Meeting all the criteria, and as the only respondent that was a Certified B Corp, CleanChoice Energy was selected.
In addition to managing the sign-ups, CleanChoice Energy helped the campaign succeed by answering questions at numerous public events and preparing marketing materials. It was a fruitful endeavor for both entities. As Kate Colarulli, Chief of Staff for CleanChoice explains, “It was a rewarding opportunity to partner with the City, expand what we were doing, and create a really consumer-friendly option.”
Neighborhood Sun, not operational at the time of the RFP, was later added to the campaign as an option because it met all the criteria, including being a Certified B Corp, and provided an additional viable offering.
At the end of the six-month enrollment period, CleanChoice Energy acquired a total of 577 customers, and Neighborhood Sun got 75 subscribers. Gina Mathias estimates that the City’s carbon reduction effort was equivalent to taking about 793 cars off the road each year.
Neighborhood Sun and CleanChoice Energy highlight the importance of locally-rooted companies dedicated to improving our communities and world. By providing services and products to reduce our ecological impact, they empower individuals, businesses and municipalities to take action. They also inspire other businesses to follow suit. If you are interested in learning more about B Lab certification and the Montgomery County Green Business Certification Program, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article by Julia Craighill, Ensight Consulting