Category Archives: Humans of Solar


Zach Sprau recently received his Master’s degree from Appalachian State University, and is the head project coordinator for United Solar Initiative’s project with the Hospitality House, a homeless shelter in Boone, NC. Here, he talks about his experience with USI and what he hopes to do with solar energy in his future career endeavors. 

USI: When did you first start working with USI and what got you interested?

Sprau: I first started working with USI towards the end of the Spring 2016 semester. I learned about them through the Clean Tech Summit at UNC Chapel Hill. They had a booth and I signed up to check out the chapter at Appalachian State.

The main thing that got me interested in them was their partnership with World Vision doing solar water pumping. Prior to grad school, my wife and I worked with a similar organization in Haiti for a year, so it was exciting to see that USI was combining international development and renewable energy.

USI: Can you tell me about your experience working on the Hospitality House? What drew you to head up that project?

Sprau: As the USI team was meeting at Appalachian State, Jack mentioned that we were looking for additional projects, and that USI would be interested in doing some local projects. I am good friends with Jordan Duke, the Hospitality House Facilities Manager. We’d discussed projects he’d done there in the past such as solar thermal, the vegetable garden, and the chicken coop. I’d remembered him mentioning that he’d love to have PV for the Hospitality House, so I mentioned it to Jack, and we decided to give it a shot.

Several things drew me to head the project. Jack and Sam (the experienced USI members on our team) were graduating, and Jack asked me to head up the project after he left. It was also a natural fit as I had the relationship with Jordan and we’d worked together before. Finally, I believed in the project. I was using renewable energy (something I’m passionate about) to serve an underserved population. The Hospitality House is doing amazing work. I have learned so much about what they do through working on this project.

USI: Have there been any particularly challenging aspects of the Hospitality House project for you? 

Sprau: The main challenge has been time limitations. I’ve been trying to manage this project while going to school full time and working two part time jobs. As you can imagine, there have been many times where it has had to take a back seat to other obligations, and therefore has taken a bit longer than we were originally hoping.

USI: What have you enjoyed most about working on the Hospitality House?

Sprau: One of the main things I’ve enjoyed is getting to work with people who are truly interested in using resources to help others, and working with an organization that has been established to do just that. It also doesn’t hurt that I genuinely find solar power fascinating, and it’s potential to positively impact the lives of people.

USI: Do you plan to continue working in the solar energy field post-graduation? If so, what do you envision doing and why? 

Sprau: Since graduating, I’ve gone full time with the company that I was working with part time during grad school, SunVolt Electric. It’s an electrical contractor in Boone that does most of the PV (photovoltaic) installs in the area. I plan to keep working with them for a while to learn as much as I can, but the eventual goal is to return to the international relief and development sector (where I worked prior to grad school) to use solar energy to address energy poverty in developing nations.

Read more about the Hospitality House of Boone, NC at

Article by: Lydia Odom

Photo provided by Zach Sprau

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Cole Anderson graduated from Appalachian State University in the spring of 2014, and following his graduation, joined students from ASU and volunteers from USI on a trip to Nicaragua to work on solar projects in communities there. He specifically worked in San Ramón and helped install solar panels on a local art center and community center. He now works as a project manager for Yes! Solar Solutions. This interview is edited for brevity.

USI: What made you decide to go to Nicaragua?

Cole Anderson: I was ready to do a little bit of traveling. I actually did get a couple of credits out of it as well. Most of it was that I had a lot of professors who I was involved with and they were telling me about it and it seemed like a pretty cool opportunity. I actually majored in renewables, so that seemed like a good way to get some real-world experience doing some installation stuff while also getting to do some traveling.

USI: What was the most memorable part of the trip for you?

Anderson: The first week we were there we stayed at a place called Finka Esperanza Verde. We worked on some projects while we were there but it was memorable because it was my first hands-on experience to get to do some solar stuff and micro-hydro outside of the classroom, and actually see how it was benefitting this eco-lodge. This place was completely off the grid and run by renewables and had a battery system. It was neat to see an actual eco-lodge that was running 100 percent off of renewable energy.

USI: Did you witness specific ways that the projects you were working on benefitted the community there?

Anderson: Yes, especially in San Ramón The night right before we were leaving we were coming back from a hike or dinner, and we actually walked by the community center and saw that the lights were on and there were a bunch of kids in there reading and playing board games and stuff like that. It was pretty neat to see that just a few days ago no one would have been able to be in there—there was no electricity in that building. So it was pretty neat to see that turn-around time and see how it was impacting them right then and there.

USI: Did this experience help propel you into the solar industry at all?

Anderson: We don’t necessarily get to see the impact [solar] makes in individuals’ lives, because a lot of it is about reducing your energy bill and making your life a little bit easier so that you still have all these commodities available to you. That’s great, but the big thing that stuck out to me [in Nicaragua] was that you saw these people’s lives are completely changed just because they now have access to power, in places where they otherwise might not. That alone reassured me that if I get into doing this stuff I’m not able to do projects like this all the time, but if once a year I could come back over here or figure out a way to do stuff like this and actually see it and make a solid difference in people’s lives, then that’s exactly what I want to do.

We really take it for granted. Here you get so used to pitching to people and trying to convince them why they should spend money and put this thing on their roof and to reduce their bills. And there are tons of benefits, even if you’re not necessarily a green-minded person, but [in Nicaragua] there’s no convincing involved—you’re allowing people to harness the sun to improve their lives.

Article by: Lydia Odom


Meagan Walsh (pictured right) currently works for Cape Fear Solar Systems as a Lead Generator. Formerly, she has worked for Level Solar in Long Island, New York as a Lead Marketing and Events Associate for two years. Through her experiences, she gained a passion for solar and knowledge about its importance in curbing climate change. Here, she discusses her transition to North Carolina and how the industry compares in both states.

USI: What drew you to Level Solar? What values of the organization did you like?

Meagan Walsh: I was initially drawn to Level Solar because of their mission statement — “A local company with a global mission.” It makes you realize that every bit counts and stressed the importance of what I was doing everyday. Level was built off of great values that I lived by every time I put on my uniform, and those values stretched beyond the workplace into my day-to-day life. Of their values, Unity and Positivity were my two favorites. Unity for the fact that the entire company was a team that was there for each other to help out when needed and often times going above and beyond expectations. Positivity created a great environment to walk into every day and it’s true that smiles are contagious! Not only being uplifting towards each other but sharing our excitement with the community to allow them to see our passion in solar energy as well.

USI: What were some of the benefits customers received from going solar with Level?

Walsh: The benefits to going solar with Level are almost endless! You are guaranteed a quality experience with every member of the team you interact with from start to finish. Customers are provided with top tier equipment and 24/7 monitoring on the system, which allows for efficient production. On top of working with an amazing company, customers are eligible for several monetary rebates from the state and government.

USI: What were major oppositions to solar in New York? Do you expect to see similar roadblocks in North Carolina?

Walsh: The most common opposition to going solar in New York would be “I can’t afford it” however, NY has the Power Purchase Agreement, which allows people to go solar at no upfront cost. Once New Yorkers learned about that, it became a no brainer! I expect to see that opposition in North Carolina as well, as the biggest roadblock for now will be that there is not yet a PPA in place in NC; but there are other financing options.

USI: How does your former job compare to your new position at Cape Fear Solar Systems?

Walsh: In New York I was the Nassau County Event Marketing Lead, in my new position at CFSS I will be doing something very similar. I will be stepping in to help the company have a steadier system for lead generation, attend community events including home shows, street fairs, etc., and uplift their social media presence.

USI: What do you look forward to about relocating to Wilmington, North Carolina? What are some differences in the solar industry between the two states?

Walsh: I’m definitely looking forward to the weather down here! It’s much easier to explain the benefits of going solar when you’re not in the middle of a blizzard dumping 3ft of snow! The major differences I’ve seen so far between solar in NY and solar in NC is that not as many people down here know of the different programs and options for how a family can go solar.

USI: Why are you passionate about solar?

Walsh: I’ve always had a passion for solar energy and environmental sustainability. From a young age I knew I wanted to do something to literally change the world but I didn’t know how. Growing up in a time where environmental consciousness has become more recognized has definitely helped drive my desire to get into the field. The opportunities in the renewable energy sector are endless.  When I was in my senior year of college and started looking into various career paths, I noticed that there were several solar energy companies hiring. Throughout my two years working in the field, my passion has continued to grow and develop. Knowing I’m doing something to help the environment AND help people save money is incredibly rewarding. I can go home everyday and know that I did something meaningful and that feeling is priceless.

Interview By: Andie Migden

Larry Bleymir Gomez

USI: Can you describe your role with the Sisterhood Communities of San Ramon? How did you get involved with them?

Larry Bleymir: It has been almost two years since I started working for Sister Communities of San Ramon (SCSRN),  a non-profit organization.  My current position is Coordinator of Tourism and Advertisement. Every year, we offer Eco tours to Nicaragua. These type of trips are customized to what the participants want, we offer cultural immersion for each traveler.  I am the person who makes all the preparation and plans for each group that comes with us.

I am a Spanish native speaker, and I was born in Nicaragua, a Central American country. I studied English as a second language at the University of Northern Iowa in the Summer of 2011. After my return to my country, I applied for a job. This is my first full-time job.

By the time that I got the job, I was doing volunteer work in my community and working part time at a school teaching kids to use computers. 

USI: On how many projects have you worked with USI and which one was most memorable?

Bleymir: Our first project in partnership with USI was in May 2014. Two solar systems were installed in two community centers in the town of San Ramon. Both systems were the first ones ever installed in this small town. Since then, four other systems have been installed in schools in rural communities in the county of San Ramon. All six systems have been a learning experience and have been successful.

In each installation, members and leaders of the communities, USI, and SCSRN did an amazing job.

One of my most memorable installation was at Mina Verde 2. This is a very rural community and its school has the same name as the village. The community faced the challenge to help to carry materials for the system on their shoulders, it was a 40 minute walk uphill. People were always excited and happy to know that they were going to have lights at the school. This project opened many opportunities for them.  It was an extraordinary team to work with.  

USI: What impact do the solar installations have on the rural communities of Nicaragua? What future do you see for the communities that you’ve helped?

Bleymir: The lives of people in these communities have been changed in many ways. Access to education has been one of the most valuable inputs to their lives. Many adults and youth in these communities do not know how to read or write, and this project has given them the opportunity to attend night classes. A lot of them quit school because they have to work in agriculture to support their families and children. Now, with access to light at night they can get some education.

Furthermore, teachers can teach a wider variety of lessons. Now, children can have dance lessons and watch movies that can teach them in a more fun way what their prior academic curriculum demands. A lot of these children do not have access to TV or to watch an educational documentary.

Many communities in the very rural areas of Nicaragua have schools as a community center as well. Usually, schools are the best infrastructures that can be found. With solar, people can gather for their activities and communal reunions.

Little by little the new generation in these communities will have access to a better lifestyle where they can have green energy as a tool for daily life.

I strongly believe that education is the only way a community or individuals can grow and improve their own lives.

Why solar?

Bleymir: One of the main reasons why we go solar is because it is one of the best ways to empower communities with clean energy. Another reason is the access to some of this communities is only walking distance or a short horse ride away.

Nicaragua as a country has made some improvements on expanding its grid to power many places that did not have any source of energy, but a lot of these places have roads that make the access much easier or are also very near to towns or cities.

The communities in which the last four systems have been installed are communities that had no access to electricity at all. Some reasons are because there is a lack of roads and long distances to cities.  

We also want to spread the word that solar is a great source that we as human beings can use to fulfill some or our needs.

Article: Andie Migden

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Stephen Kalland has worked with energy efficiency and renewable energy for over 20 years. His work with the North Carolina Clean Energy Center includes public policy as well as workforce and economic development. Here, Steve speaks to the solar momentum in North Carolina as well as how the next generation should continue to look forward.


United Solar Initiative: In your experience, what has laid the foundation for the growth of solar in North Carolina- in terms of policy, big business, and otherwise?

Stephen Kalland: Well, I think if you go back far enough, the foundation was really laid more than 20 years ago with the creation of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association and the North Carolina Solar Center, my organization. These were the two early entities that kind of had North Carolina keep energy on its radar screen, in the early years when there was not much going on in the industry.

You know, the political work in particular that NCSCA has done- has done a lot over the years- you know the market that we have now, there’s a lot of policy involved in that market. But it’s not necessarily any one big piece, it’s a collection of a lot of smaller pieces that have made it happen.

And some of those pieces that have been around dating back to the early 80’s, and have been painstakingly crafted and put into place and nurtured by these early organizations and have kind of grown to a point where when market prices fell to an appropriate level, the market really took off.


USI: What is the most exciting thing you’ve seen in terms of new sustainable or renewable energy technologies?

Kalland: Well there’s a lot of new technology out there that’s not really renewable that is going to drive the next generation of technology. It’s more what I would call enabling technologies. Things like smart grid technologies of various types- everything from group management and integration at the network level down to the thermostat on my wall.

You combine that with the evolution of more practical microgrid technology, energy storage technology that’s starting to roll out more aggressively at costs that are more economically feasible.

Even right now the most exciting thing is frankly the opportunity that all of these new smart technologies are creating for data. At a time in the very near horizon, there’s going to be a huge amount of data available that we’re going to have to figure out what to do with. Bringing to bare some of the tools that are being developed in the world of big data, bringing them to bare in the world of energy management, technologically is not very far away.

I think potentially it can create fairly sizable benefits to the economy and the people. I think the problem we’ve got is, while the technology is not very far away, the regulatory framework and the policies take advantage of those technologies…. So we’ve got some work to do to try to adapt the system to best take advantage of the new technology.


USI: What is the most pivotal thing you think our generation should focus its efforts on to see big changes and continued growth in the clean energy sector?

Kalland: Well I think probably the biggest issue that your generation- and when I say your generation and I’m talking to you and people down to the age of my oldest son who is 15- I think the biggest thing in regards to energy is mindfulness.

My generation doesn’t even know what energy is. They’re pretty much convinced it comes from a switch on the wall or a socket on the wall and doesn’t really think, for the most part, about the implications of how it’s generated, how it’s transmitted, how it’s used very much. And I think that’s what’s really led us to the problem we have today with things like climate change right on down the line to coal ash pollution.

So you know, your generation will have a whole new set of technologies available to it to try and move it in a direction that’s not going to have these same problems. And if you are mindful of it and continue to make it an issue, and this is the problem- if you look at political polling since we’re on a big election day today up in New Hampshire- if you look at political polling, energy issues are fifteenth on the list of things people are worried about.

But if you dig into energy issues, they’re the root cause of a lot of other issues. They’re the root cause of a lot of issues we’re dealing with in the Middle East. They’re the root cause of a lot of issues we’re dealing with in terms of poverty, of access to opportunities for young people, particularly in low-income communities. There are just a lot of things that energy touches. But it just doesn’t touch it in a way that is tremendously transparent and visible to a lot of people today. So, yeah- mindfulness is probably the big thing your generation needs to focus on.


USI: Why is the Clean Tech Summit important for the state’s renewable industry?

Kalland: Well I think again, it’s an opportunity to bring together some of the old technology and some of the new technology and talk about how we can work together to move the agenda forward.

Looking at the agenda you’ve got folks from major electrical utilities, you’ve got folks from the regulatory communities, and you’ve got a lot of folks working not only in the renewable field but are working in some of these associated supporting technology fields we talked about. I saw a whole session on the ‘Internet of Things’ and I’m really excited to go to those sessions.

So I think, in general, these conversations need to happen and they need to happen frequently to drive us to where we need to be.


USI: Why solar?

Kalland: Why solar? Well, so I teach environmental science to undergrads here at NC State. And I’ve been involved in the energy field now for twenty-some odd years.

You know, the reality is, there is no silver bullet for our problems. But of the bullets we have in the gun, solar, particularly when combined with a smarter grid and energy storage capabilities, is about the closest to a silver bullet we’re gonna find.

We’re just not ready to pull the plug on existing power plants and supplant them with solar tomorrow, and we may not be ready for a while. But solar is the technology that probably has the best opportunity to continue reducing its costs, improving its efficiency, and improving its applicability with all of these new technologies that are coming down the pipe that will make it more and more useful.

So you know, nothing’s perfect, but solar is approaching as good as it gets with the technology that we have today.


Article By: Meredith Ratledge


UNC-Chapel Hill graduate David Plunkett currently works for Strata Solar as a project coordinator. His degree in environmental science, coupled with his experience studying abroad in Thailand, helped pave the way for his career in the solar industry. Here, he discusses his education and experience with Strata.

United Solar Initiative: What is your position with Strata Solar and what skills have you found useful in the solar industry?

Davis PlunkettI am a Development Project Coordinator for utility-scale solar farms in North Carolina.  Before you can actually build a solar farm, you have to work with utility, get site studies done, test the soil, do a lot of engineering, and get zoning approved.  I coordinate all of these tasks to make sure they happen in the right sequence.  It’s about a year-and-a-half long process before you can actually build a farm.  It requires an understanding of electromagnetism, power, energy markets, real estate law, and government agencies and regulations.  I also work with civil engineering and GIS.  Energy is not simple and I think the major at UNC has done a good job at making you understand that.  It is tied into so many things we have to understand deeply.


USI: Tell me about your experience abroad.  How has that experience changed the way you view renewable energy?

Plunkett:   I was abroad my junior year for 7 months in Bangkok, Thailand.  The Institute for the Environment at UNC has several field sites; the one in Bangkok focuses on energy and sustainability.  There, I took classes on environmental health science and emerging technologies.  My experience more formed my ideas of the possibility of leapfrogging.  Leapfrogging is when industrializing countries skip over the period of dirty energy that is all too common and go straight to renewable energy.  Cities like Bangkok are growing so much in their demand for energy.  This demand is fueling a blind drive for whatever is cheapest.  Through clever financing and dissemination of knowledge about renewable energy, industrializing countries can go straight to renewables. 


USI: What do you see as the major roadblocks to the solar industry?

Plunkett:   The technology is there; every year we have a record efficiency for a panel.  Where I think the flip needs to happen is public opinion and policy.  This industry is growing rapidly, providing jobs and boosting local economies.  We have a job to remove the skepticism that solar is not a proven technology, because it is.  Solar just sits in a field and hums, that’s it.  It’s the best neighbor you could hope for.  When people learn what solar is, and how benign and good for the world it is, their skepticism dissolves.


USI:  Why solar?

Plunkett:   Its availability, abundance, and versatility.  There’s only so many places you can put a 5-megawatt wind turbine.  Throw solar on a rooftop or on top of a car.  Paint your house with photovoltaic paint.  It’s incredible.  I see it being put everywhere.


Article By: Majorie Primm


Jim Rogers is the former CEO and chairman of the board for Duke Energy. He continues to advocate for sustainable energy access as written in his book Lighting the World. More about Jim’s book can be found at Here he discusses the fight against energy poverty.

United Solar Initiative: Since leaving Duke you’ve written a book called Lighting the World, which points to the current state of world energy poverty. Why is energy poverty an issue?

Jim Rogers: It’s my judgement that access to electricity is a basic human right. It is foundational in that it enables medical care, education, economic development, and more efficient farming. And the efficient farming is especially important given that about 50% of people in low-income countries– and I always say low-income countries rather than developing countries because I think it’s a better way to talk about it– but in low-income countries, farmers make a living in the agriculture sector.

And the UN has finally found that electricity should be one of their sustainable development goals for 2015- 2030. And this is a breakthrough for the UN because when setting their goals in 2000, they failed to recognize access to electricity as a millennium development goal.


USI: What are the specific benefits to fighting this form of poverty in our world?

Rogers: I think that the math is stunning. About 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity. Of the 1.2 billion, 600 million plus are in Sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 300 million are in India, another 100 million in Indonesia, and the remainder scattered around the world. So bringing access to electricity basically enables societies to develop and to grow, to start to lift people from poverty. And actually, if you study the US, a high-income country in the world today, in the 20th century providing access to electricity and all that enables fundamentally changed our economy, transformed the lives of people, extended the life expectancy for both men and women. So access to electricity has played a very dominant role in the development and the cultures of high-income countries.


USI: What role do you see for-profit energy companies/utilities playing in the fight to end energy poverty?

Rogers: My focus has been on the 1.2 billion people in rural areas of low-income countries. There has been a reluctance of state-owned utilities to extend the grid to these rural areas. And the important fact today is that the price of solar has fallen to a place where it is cheaper and matches the capability to pay better in these low-income countries than extending the grid. So the important point is we are able to bring electricity to these people, help lift them from poverty, give them an opportunity to own and then deploy technologies up the ladder of the various solar technologies. And we do all of this in a way that puts them on a trajectory that allows them to be climbing out of poverty without adding to the carbon emissions in the world in the same way it has occurred in high-income countries.


USI: You’ve advocated for energy efficiency and a transition to a low-carbon future. What do you see as key to that transition?

Rogers: Well the transition is already underway. And in the last decade the falling renewable cost, specifically of wind and solar, has really driven the replacement of coal plants with natural gas, especially shale gas, which has 50% the carbon footprint of coal. Renewables have zero emissions, and at the end of the day, they have grown dramatically. The way I think about it is, whether you’re in a high-income or low-income countries, five years ago solar wasn’t as cost effective or competitive as other alternatives. And actually, my writing of the book couldn’t have occurred five years ago because I couldn’t have made the case solar was a more affordable alternative and matches the increasing capability to pay as people get on the income trajectory brought on by greater economic development. So I think the development of solar and wind is transforming how we provide electricity both in the US and other high-income countries as well as in the rural areas of low-income countries around the world.


USI: Why solar?

Rogers: There are several things that underpin the importance of solar today. One is you’ve seen the fallen price that makes it affordable and competitive with other alternatives. The other reason solar is so important- it is basically carbon free and allows us to continue crossing the bridge to a low-carbon world. Coupled with that is the fact you’ve seen the emergence of storage technologies, which really, either way, addresses the intermittency of solar. So my belief is that in the longer-term, and you’ve already seen this recently, solar trumps wind because it can be distributed. And at the end of the day, solar will be cheaper, solar will be distributed, solar will lead to a more resilient grid in the high-income countries and will lift people out of poverty in the low-income countries.


Article- Meredith Ratledge

Photo- Clean Technica


Rob Pinder, the founder of NextClimate, is determined to take action on climate change through affordable renewable energy. NextClimate is a nonprofit based in North Carolina that helps provide cost-effective renewable energy to homeowners. Pinder has used NextClimate to launch several campaigns called SolarizeNC that have pushed for solar in various communities.

United Solar Initiative: Why solar?

Rob Pinder: Our mission at NextClimate is to help people take action on climate change in ways that strengthen communities. We looked around at different ways to do that, and solar is a powerful way for people to reduce their emissions by a lot. Also, it saves them money. Everything lines up very nicely with solar, for people putting in on their homes. There are other ways to reduce your electricity use and be more efficient, but we have been really excited about our Solarize programs because it makes a big difference that is measurable. 

USI: What drove you to start NextClimate?

Pinder:  I was really drawn to the idea of NextClimate because we’ve learned a ton about climate and there’s obviously a lot more to learn. We know there are challenges to be solved right now and we have the technologies to do it right now, but there’s a gap between people knowing about it and people doing something about it. So, I really wanted to help fill that gap, by making it easier for people to do something. There are a lot of magazines that show “here’s the top 10 green tips you can do,” and it’s like changing lightbulbs. And that’s good, people should change their lightbulbs, but we wanted to make it just as easy to improve your efficiency. I was really drawn to that goal because it seems like climate change is accelerating a lot more rapidly than we thought. So we need to do something now, and I wanted to be part of doing something about it now, instead of studying it and raising an alarm about it.

USI: How are the Solarize programs connected to NextClimate?

Pinder: Solarize is a program that NextClimate runs. The whole idea behind Solarize started in 2009 when a bunch of neighbors got together in Portland, Oregon, and they said, “We don’t know much about solar, and it seems kind of expensive, but I bet if we all got together we could negotiate a better price from our local installer … ” It helps lower the social stigma. If all your neighbors are doing it, then you’re not the weird person with solar on your roof. 

So they brought together the three forces that really made a big impact on the adoption of solar. And the Department of Energy saw what they did and funded a couple other pilot programs in other places, and out of that came a sort of handbook on how to do it in your town. So at the end of 2013, I saw the handbook and thought it was a great idea, and about the same time there were folks in Asheville thinking about the same idea, there were folks in Durham thinking about the same idea, and we started out all working independently, but over time ended up working very closely together and collaborating. Oftentimes, different nonprofits are kind of vying for the same space and they end up butting heads, but it has been really great having different groups with different expertise being able to share what works and what doesn’t, and resources and methods.

USI: Is Solarize a one-time thing, or do you plan to do it again in the future?

Pinder: Originally, we thought about it as just getting the pump primed, and once we got the pump primed the water would be flowing and take off. So we did that and doubled the number of installations in Orange County. But the state tax credit for renewables went away this year, so we’ve been thinking that we probably need to do another push. … So we’re gearing up for another campaign in 2016 and trying to be creative about other kinds of options we can help people with that make up some of that price difference that used to be there with the tax credit. 

USI: Beyond just the benefit of renewable energy, what do you think is the value of the installations NextClimate has done at the schools in Carrboro?

Pinder: The renewable energy aspect is nice, but it’s actually really small — a school uses an enormous amount of power. But I think it really serves two purposes. One is sort of a reminder to the community. Here’s this technology that we have at the school, why doesn’t every school have it? Why doesn’t every house have it? And the second is a learning tool. We spent a lot of effort making sure that the amount of electricity being generated is pushed out onto the Internet, so you can view it on each panel. The one at McDougle is next to the middle school, which is next to the library and the elementary school, so when they have different events people go out and tour it. … The renewable energy part is nice, but I think the goal was to make it accessible for students, and hopefully inspire some of them.

USI: What else have you observed while working in the solar industry?

Pinder: Something that we’ve observed is that most of the people who’ve switched to solar buy it outright — they purchase the whole system upfront. And those people were also able to take advantage of tax credits. So, that tends to be people who have higher income or more savings. We’ve been working a lot on how to make this same opportunity available to people who aren’t in that situation. Lower income groups spend a much bigger chunk of their disposable income on energy, so if we can save those groups ten dollars a month on their electric bill, that’s a much bigger dent. So we’ve been thinking about the next phase and how to find that nexus between making energy more affordable and making energy more renewable. We have a couple programs in different stages of being ready, but they aren’t quite approved and ready to go. But that’s what we’re really excited about going forward, just trying to broaden the access to renewable energy as best we can.

Article: Lydia Odom

Photo: Yee Lam


Representative Chuck McGrady is an important environmental figure in North Carolina legislature. Here he discusses his perspective of the solar industry as a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly.

United Solar Initiative: Can you discuss your advocacy for the environment despite being a Republican in the House? What issues do you regularly face?

Chuck McGrady: Republicans, over the last two decades, don’t have a very good reputation in terms of environmental protection. But I view protecting the air and water as really conservative issues. I mean it’s about leaving the place as good or better than you received it for future generations, and that sounds pretty conservative to me. And so, my work has involved a lot of environmental work. I think it’s noteworthy that I am sometimes not voting with the majority of my Republican colleges on a lot of environmental legislation that comes along, but when something really big occurs, for example, the large coal ash spill into the Dan River about a year and a half ago, then the Speaker and leadership in the House, in turn, can craft the legislation to manage the coal ash issue and lead paths first in the nation to pass coal ash legislation. And I’ve been able to slowly bring along my colleagues. And I’m making the case for Republicans needing to be about protecting air, water, and land, and so I’ve gained some credibility with my colleagues and I’ve been able to do more work in that area.


USI: Why do you think the environment is such a partisan issue, and do you think there is anything that can be done to change that?

McGrady: I think it’s sort of a historical anomaly. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the environment was a bipartisan issue. But beginning with President Reagan and two President Bushs, the leadership of the party was with western Republicans. And frankly, these issues break down east to west more than republican to democratic. But, when the party was being lead by western Republicans, they didn’t share the same views as their eastern colleges. In the east, we’ve got cities, and we’ve learned through time that when you’ve got a lot of people along a river you have to learn how to protect your water source and deal with your waste- solid waste, sewage, or something else. In the west, you don’t have that issue, so the focus in more on extractive industries of various types- mining and whatnot. So I think the party has sort of lost its focus on the issue, and the Democrats were opportunists that picked up the issue and were actually able to use the issue effectively in the debate over politics. I’ve always been hoping to change that, so that’s been a goal for several decades now.


I think that Republicans ought to be perhaps more willing to approach these issues in a non-regulatory fashion, and would be something consistent with their conservative philosophies. And I would hope that Democrats and Republicans can agree to protect the air and water and the only debate would be on how we can do that.


USI: Is there anything you would like to discuss about the expiration of the North Carolina tax credit on solar?

McGrady: Well I lost that battle. I was a strong supporter of renewing the solar tax credits. We got a slight extension, meaning that projects that were begun before the end of the year will continue to receive the tax credit. I don’t have big hopes for being able to put it back in place. Philosophically, my colleagues don’t like these types of tax credits, and have been slowly but surely been trying to do away with a whole range of tax credits of the same sort. And this year we just weren’t capable of extending it.


USI: Do you think there was anything that could’ve been done to prevent this?

McGrady: Politics is about relationships. A large number of my colleagues obviously didn’t view the tax credits as valuable enough to keep in place. If you could go back two or three years, my push would’ve been to have the supporters of the tax credits, be it solar, wind, or other renewables, spend more time building relationships with my colleagues and getting them out and showing them what was being done on the ground. I think there was some amount of misinformation about the tax credits and how they were being used.


USI: Why solar?

McGrady: It’s a clean source of energy. So, for example, we’re not dealing with coal where you’ve got coal ash, or with nuclear where you’ve got a waste stream that will last in/for perpetuity. Most other types of energy have air quality or water quality impacts. That’s generally not true of solar. One could argue it takes metal, glass, and wiring to create a solar panel, but its overall impact on the environment is much less than other sources. And as it becomes a financially viable alternative, I think it needs to be a part of the mix. I think as we improve our battery capacity, solar and other renewables will become even more important. So I see a really good future for solar, even if we suffered a bit of a setback with the failure to renew the solar tax credit.

Article: Meredith Ratledge

Photo: Citizen-Times

Greg Gangi

Greg Gangi is a professor at UNC, Chapel Hill, and director with the Institute for the Environment. He discussed his motivation behind teaching and how this accompanies his relationship with leaders in the solar industry in North Carolina.

United Solar Initiative: How would you describe your relationship to the solar industry?

Greg Gangi: Well I just got an 8.25 kW system put on my house this week. It’s not hooked up yet, so the inverter hasn’t been installed, but in a few weeks, I’ll be producing my own electricity. So that’s really exciting. And then on another level I’ve known a lot of the entrepreneurs who’ve developed the solar industry in North Carolina. I have a good relationship with them and I’ve been sending them a lot of students via either internships or jobs into their companies. So that’s been a really nice relationship for us because it gives students great opportunities.


USI: Why are you a teacher and how does this align with your support of the renewable sector? Does support of one aid in support of the other?

Gangi: I think there are many things to being a teacher, so I think this aligns more with the idea of being a mentor. Mentoring is very important also, and I think it’s important to help students with career development, so the growth of the renewable industry in North Carolina has been great for our majors.


USI: How does your advocacy of the solar industry come to fruition in the classroom?

Gangi: It’s not so much advocacy, I just point out the obvious like price declines and how solar is reaching grid parity. I use solar also as an example for how technology can scale up, and that’s part of a larger discussion about clean technology and how clean technology can really help bridge the divide between environment and economic development.

And then of course, as part of teaching, again, I’ve been trying to look at different ways to teach so there’s still the standard lecture format, and I’ve struggled to find ways, especially in the intro class that is very broad, and there’s not a lot of problem sets to do a flipped classroom. But I’ve been doing other things like the Clean Tech Summit, which brings the clean technology industry to campus, and so students then can really learn from people from a wide range of industries doing things related to clean tech whether it’s finance or renewable energy developers or smart grid companies. This, I think, is a really good way to show students what’s out there. I can stand up and lecture; it’s another thing to go there and have lunch with somebody who is a CEO of a company. That just provides an entirely different perspective.

Article: Meredith Ratledge

Photo: Jack Molloy