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ONE CALL FOR ALL | Nonprofit Enlightens Communities With Solar Energy
While Seattle boasts a mere 58 sunny days a year on average, one Bainbridge Island nonprofit is basking in the sunshine.
Community Energy Solutions, founded six years ago, helps communities realize the power of solar energy through projects and educational outreach.
CES already has two major island-wide projects under its belt, having spearheaded the efforts to put solar panels on the roofs of Sakai Intermediate School and Bainbridge Island City Hall.
In the early 2000s, cofounders Tammy and Joe Deets were inspired by the potential for solar energy during a trip to Tibet.
Up in the mountains, more than 10,000 feet above sea level, the Deetses espied the tents of Tibetan nomads. And outside, powering TVs airing Chinese soap operas, were solar panels.
“We saw that as almost like, ‘Wow, if they are using solar power here, why didn’t we see more solar panels back in our home country?’” Tammy Deets recalled.
“And so we came back to the states and we did some research. We joined organizations that talk about renewable energy, and we quickly learned that solar actually works here in Washington state, but there are lots of barriers.”
The law at the time was very particular about how solar panels could be owned and operated.
“It did not incentivize people to pool their financial resources together, to do a community-scale project,” she said.
“You could put solar on your house, I could put solar on my house, but I couldn’t put solar on your house,” Joe Deets added.
In order to educate the community about the benefits and possibilities of solar energy, the Deetses held a heavily attended outreach program at city hall in 2005.
One audience member was then-state senator Phil Rockefeller, who now serves on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
“He contacted us. He said, ‘How could we work together to change the law?’” Joe Deets said. “That started a working attempt to change the legislation.”
But it would be another five years before that vision could become a reality. Two years after the community forum, Todd Erler, the couple’s friend and a teacher at Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School (who now teaches at Commodore Options School), approached the Deetses with the idea for a solar system on the roof of the school, which is “what got the ball rolling,” Joe Deets said.
“So we developed a team which become a nonprofit organization.”
In January 2009, the Solar for Sakai project was officially completed, through donations directly to the school and a grant from Puget Sound Energy.
Finally, two years after the Sakai project, the Washington State Senate passed the 2010 Community Solar Law, as it is commonly known. The law allows community members to own part of a solar system on property they themselves don’t own, thereby encouraging solar power and community investment.
CES stepped up to the challenge. The nonprofit formed Community Solar Solutions to manage a 297-panel solar system on the roof of city hall. Unlike the Sakai project, where the school district owned the system, 24 island families capitalize on the sun while CSS rents the roof in the role of an administrator.
“The city is getting a revenue stream they otherwise would not have gotten,” Joe Deets said. “And meanwhile, these families are investing in their community, creating local jobs and reducing the carbon footprint of the city.”
Although the solar panel campaigns were directly run by for-profit subsidiaries, CES made it all possible, with help from One Call For All.
“Without One Call for All, I think it would be extremely difficult to do what we’re doing, frankly,” Joe Deets said.
“It’s a validation that people do care,” Tammy Deets added.
“It’s less about the financial need that we have. It’s more the moral support,” she said.
While large-scale solar projects aren’t in the cards for the near future, CES is hoping to create a pamphlet to educate schoolchildren and others about the potential of solar energy.
“It’s going to take another generation,” Tammy Deets said. “It’s going to take kids from (the) Sakai kind of generation who grew up in that kind of environment — let’s talk about energy, the value of ener