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Harrisonburg Solar Panel Program Helps Ex-Convicts

J. Brian Garmon
Creative Commons

The Gemeinschaft Home is a nonprofit in Harrisonburg that helps ex-convicts re-enter society.  Their Community Residential Program is open to men coming out of prison with nonviolent criminal records.

They live in an old farmhouse that now sports something new -- 82 solar panels, thanks to a project called “Give Solar.” WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports.

Volunteers pass a solar panel onto one of the installation roofs at Gemeinschaft.

ERIC BECK: Sometimes the biggest challenge is when you have 20 volunteers, just that fantastic energy and willingness to come out and work for free, but then the tasks involved are enough for half of them.

That’s Eric Beck, the owner of Green Hill Solar – the company providing the materials and skilled labor for the project.

ERIC BECK: That’s the value of volunteers. Not only just the effort but also the energy and the passion they bring to whatever project they’re working on.

The group was assembled by Jeff Heie, who started the nonprofit program Give Solar through a one-year grant from the Merck Foundation. He’s worked on solar installations with a few of these volunteers since 2016, when they held a solar barn raising at the Gift and Thrift store just down the road.

JEFF HEIE: One of the ways that we fundraise for this project is by telling potential donors that this is a matching grant from the sun. So for every dollar that they give to this project, the sun is actually going to match that dollar and multiply it by five over time.

Green Hill solar employee and lead installer Jonathan Lantz-Trissel and volunteers Tim Godshall, Micah Shristi, and Eric King placing the second of 82 panels.

So far, they’ve raised $23,000 for the installation – about three quarters of the total project cost. Nine thousand [dollars] came from the Merck grant, and the rest from church sponsors and small individual donations. Now that the bulk of the installation is complete, conduit needs to be buried and the final wires pulled and connected. Heie says the system will be up and running in a few weeks.

JEFF HEIE: That will save Gemeinschaft about $5,000 a year for the next 25 to 30 years, which is the lifespan of solar panels.

Sharon Ringgold, the executive director of Gemeinschaft, says those savings are going right back into their programs at the home.

SHARON RINGGOLD: … the money of course that will be saved, putting back into the home, putting it back into the residents that live here, putting it into the programming we do here, bringing on hopefully a counselor – we want to bring on a licensed counselor right here on property – any time we can have savings, just putting that right back into the work we do here.

Give Solar founder Jeff Heie discussing the installation.

Eric Beck says that, while solar panels are becoming more affordable for all purchasers, there are incentives like tax credits available to businesses that nonprofit organizations can’t access.

ERIC BECK: … for Jeff to take the initiative to find funding and make a path that they can have a solar system on buildings that they own, is, I think hugely beneficial, not only in just the contribution to reducing their carbon footprint, but also, most nonprofits that I know have very slim operating budgets and are scrapping for monies wherever they can get it to perform their incredibly valuable services for the community.

Four of the volunteers carrying panels, breaking down pallets, and digging a trench were residents of the home. One of them, Vincent Webster, says he decided to pitch in even though he didn’t have previous construction experience.

VINCENT WEBSTER: I kinda, you know, wanted to actually get a new experience and also learn more about the solar power.  It’s just, it’s a great experience, and, you know, I’m excited to kind of participate and be a part of this.

For WMRA News, I’m Randi B. Hagi.