North Philadelphia goes SOULAR!

By Laura Rigell, PEA Intern and Serenity Soular volunteer,
Masters of City Planning candidate, Penn Design

Many assume that only the wealthy care about “sustainability”, but low-income communities are taking ownership of the concept through the lens of environmental justice.  By bringing the benefits of solar power to North Philadelphia, Serenity Soular is challenging assumptions about who should be included in the clean energy revolution.

On July 30, 2016, Serenity Soular untied the ribbon on its first major project – putting a 5.6 kW solar array on top of Serenity House, a community outreach center at 1209 W. Lehigh Ave. The project successfully provided job training and renewable energy to North Philadelphia.  Saturday’s celebration was covered by The Notebook and The Philadelphia Tribune.  As a result of a year of fundraising, coordinating, and healing, solar panels now sit atop Serenity House and two young people from the neighborhood have jobs in the green economy.

Serenity House, operated by Arch Street United Methodist Church, provides safe space through men’s and women’s support groups and educational events. Anchored at Serenity House, Serenity Soular is a collaboration aiming to expand the green economy in North Philadelphia.  In 2014, the Swarthmore College engineering department donated a solar panel for the Serenity House garage roof.  At a public event to install the panel, residents expressed excitement to bring solar jobs to the neighborhood.  That December, Swarthmore students and faculty and North Philadelphia residents launched Serenity Soular to build on the momentum from the garage roof installation.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, Serenity Soular worked through the RE-volv Solar Ambassador program to install solar on Serenity House.  RE-volv is an organization based in San Francisco that finances solar installations for non-profits. In addition to crowdfunding for the cost of the solar installation, Serenity Soular also fundraised to support an apprenticeship program. Serenity Soular partnered with Solar States, a North Philadelphia-based installation company, to complete the project.  In the spring of 2016, Serenity Soular selected two young people, Ky Saunders, age 22, and Robert Crawford, age 24, to join an apprenticeship program in the lead-up to the installation.  Serenity Soular provided Ky and Robert with stipends for attending solar training classes held at the Youth Build Charter School twice a week from April to June.  In July, Ky and Robert shadowed Solar States during the solar installation on Serenity House.  At the end of the apprenticeship, Solar States hired them as solar installers.

In the long-run, Serenity Soular aims to launch a worker-owned cooperative solar installation business in North Philadelphia, to create even more employment opportunities for people like Ky and Robert.  Over the next year, Serenity Soular is working to solarize Morris Chapel Baptist Church, located two doors down from Serenity House.  Serenity Soular also has plans to install solar-powered lighting in the new “People’s Garden,” which was launched by local residents and allies in the spring of 2016.  Serenity Soular will continue expanding access to solar power and green jobs in North Philadelphia to ensure that low-income communities can reap the benefits of sustainability.