Northwestern Pennsylvania might not be the first place that comes to mind when the topic is the future of clean energy, but three local entrepreneurs are hoping to change the way people think about the topic and the region.
In fact, they have begun changing it already through their participation in the Solar in Your Community Challenge, a contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.
James Magee, Cody Gettig and Nathaniel Harry are the leaders of Increased Economic Opportunities, a corporation they formed to bring solar energy to low- and middle-income residents of Crawford County.
The trio recently received a $10,000 technical assistance award from the Solar in Your Community Challenge to help bring their goal closer to reality. They were one of just 100 teams in the nation to receive a voucher, just six of them from Pennsylvania. The award allows them to draw on legal and financial expertise as they continue in the 18-month contest to design and deploy local solar programs. The teams are competing for a final round of five prizes ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 that will be awarded based on the impact and replicability of their projects.
“That will make a big difference,” Magee said of the technical assistance award as IEC worked toward the installation of its first solar energy collection array. “The whole idea is to work together to drive down the cost of electricity for residents in general, starting with low-income and middle-class Americans.”
Achieving the company’s lofty goals depends largely on finding people willing to contribute capital, according to Magee. While IEC was formed as a standard corporation, he and his partners purposely designed “very untraditional bylaws” to make it more cooperative in nature.
“We intend to let the community have a say in this,” Magee said.
Investor input has already had an impact by directing the company’s officers to target veterans and the elderly as early recipients of solar panels, he added.
Besides raising money, the challenge of finding people to accept solar energy systems for their houses is harder than might be expected, according to Cody Gettig, IEC treasurer.
“We need to show people that putting solar panels on people’s houses is cost effective,” said Gettig, who added that “trust-based” obstacles in their target population create a challenge. “We’ve just got prove it to them.”
To help start proving both the concept and themselves, IEC has lined up a guinea pig of sorts — Gettig’s mother, who will be the first recipient of solar panels from the company. Ten panels will be installed in Traci Haner’s Franklin Pike yard in the coming weeks, followed by an open house that Magee and Gettig hope will attract more investors. Future projects eventually will be moved to rooftop locations, Gettig said, but ground-level installation will help speed up the process for now and will allow other potential customers and investors to see how everything works.
The idea behind the business, Magee explained, is to sell shares of the company to investors who then have a say in how that money is used to supply solar energy collection systems to Crawford County residents. In addition to capital raised from the sale of shares, IEC will generate funds by selling electricity.
Residents who receive solar panels won’t pay for the panels themselves but will pay IEC for the energy they receive from the panels. The rate for that energy will be steeply discounted, according to Magee, who estimated it would be just half what is typically charged for electricity from traditional sources.
Shares in the corporation are $1 each. Perhaps the loftiest of the company’s lofty goals is to sell 900 million shares. So far, more than 100 investors from six states have purchased shares. The total number of shares sold so far is just under 2,000, according to Magee.
Still, Magee sees reason for optimism.
“If the American population said, ‘Let’s all give solar a try’ and invested less than $4 each — that would be a billion dollar effort,” he said, “but it would be a trivial amount each to see a huge change.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Increased Economic Opportunities is nearly one month into the 18-month Solar in Your Community Challenge after receiving a $10,000 technical assistance award in the contest earlier this year. Investors in IEC become shareholders and help determine which Crawford County community members will receive solar energy systems. More information or to become a shareholder: Visit ieoinvest.org.