2021 | Green

First community solar project nearly done in Silver Spring

$850K system included nonprofit, private funding

share this

Tom Deyo, CEO of the Montgomery County Green Bank, speaks to those gathered at Paddington Square Apartments in Silver Spring Tuesday about the community solar project there.

Photos By Steve Bohnel

On Lanier Drive in Silver Spring, elected officials and solar energy advocates gathered Tuesday to commemorate what will be the first community solar project to come online in Montgomery County, starting next month.

A 273-kilowatt installation on the roofs of the Paddington Square apartment complex will serve 91 households and remove 235 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions versus fossil fuels — the equivalent of taking about 51 cars off the road annually.

The Montgomery County Green Bank — a nonprofit that works with county government agencies on green energy projects — and several other entities worked for years to make the project a reality.

Tom Deyo, the CEO of Montgomery County Green Bank, said in an interview that about 30 percent  of the subscriptions will go to qualifying low-income households. The system will be online by September.

Residents getting solar power will pay part of their bill to Groundswell, Deyo said. Groundswell is the subscriber agent for the project and a nonprofit working on increasing the amount of solar projects nationwide.

Residents will get a credit on their Pepco bill, which is still the main utility provider, Deyo said. Low-income families will see electric savings of about $500 annually. 

The overall project costs about $850,000. About half is financed by the Green Bank, and half from private equity, Deyo said.

He said the private investment helps bring the overall cost of the project and the subscription cost for residents down. The Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County — which owns the apartment complex — donated the roof space for the solar panels.

County Executive Marc Elrich told those gathered Tuesday that it’s important to keep utility costs for residents affordable, so they aren’t displaced. He said the model should be an example for environmental and equity goals countywide.

“My hope is that every garden apartment in the county gets blanketed by this,” Elrich said.

Adriana Hochberg, an assistant chief administrative officer who focuses on climate and environmental issues, agreed.

“Let us leverage the knowledge and know-how to propel even more community solar projects in the county,” Hochberg said. 

Suncatch Energy, a company based in College Park, is leading the overall installation efforts on the project. Brad Boston, its founder, said in an interview that the project’s focus on equity was important to him.

He said his great-grand-uncle and great-grandfather were the first two licensed Black electricians in New Orleans, soon after World War I.

Projects like the one at Paddington Square help spread the word that solar energy is a viable, affordable option, Boston said.

“People tend to follow what’s in their community,” Boston said. “So, if it’s not in your community, you’re somewhat locked out. So, there’s got to be outreach. And there’s got to be projects that are being built in a more diverse community base, so that more people see it and get the relevancy of it and participate.”

Elected officials, government leaders and other partners cut the ribbon on an example of a solar panel that will be part of the project.

And even after that, the projects need to be financed. Deyo and Boston said private investment can make solar projects possible and more affordable. 

SunLight General Capital is the financing group helping lead the effort in private investment for the project. Stacey Hughes, the chief financial officer at SunLight General Capital, said there is investor interest in solar projects like the one at Paddington Square.

But there isn’t a model yet for investors, and there are a lot of moving parts and partners in each individual project, Hughes said.

“You can’t just go buy a stock and help this happen,” Hughes said in an interview. “You can’t just go … make a deposit somewhere and these projects are gonna happen. You have to really put together a fair amount of very specialized paperwork.

“And that’s what we need to keep working on, so that we can make that easier for people, to deploy the money they want to deploy.”

Deyo said conversations with those investors, property owners, solar companies and others are tricky, but when everybody joins in, community solar projects can happen.

“There’s a lot of things that property owners are having to grapple with. This may not be one of the things that they think about first,” Deyo said. “So, how do we get into those conversations? This being a model, and us being able to put it out there, will bring those conversations forward.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com