Case study: Massive nonprofit installation helps Portland’s homeless in a powerful way

Portland Rescue Mission’s new solar installation

The problem of homelessness is unavoidable in Portland, Oregon. In the short Lyft ride from Portland International Airport to a solar conference this year at a hotel near downtown, a number of homeless encampments dotted the highway medians and other green spaces as I looked out the window.

Oregonlive reported in 2017 that the city’s homeless population increased by 10% from 2015 to 2017, and there are now around 4,000 people without permanent homes on any given night in the city.

Local nonprofit solar installation company Twende Solar had only worked on international installations until it made the decision to help with the problem at home by reaching out to the Portland Rescue Mission (PRM).

“The Portland Rescue Mission is doing some really great work in the community to help address the issues of homelessness and addiction and that is something that as Portlanders…that’s a part of our everyday life,” said Marissa Johnson, executive director of Twende Solar. “We work to support well-established organizations with mission-driven programing, and they definitely fit the bill as a highly respected nonprofit in the area addressing some critical needs.”

Twende volunteers work on the PRM project

The mission had explored the option of solar before but couldn’t pencil it out with a traditional solar company since it wasn’t eligible for any tax breaks to ease the financial burden. Twende does charge nonprofits a fee for the installation–but it’s nowhere near the price of a traditional installation, since parts and labor are mostly donated. The fee is to ensure the organizations have some stake in the projects and an incentive to take good care of the systems over time.

“It’s not as much about us getting money from them in order to actually complete the project, it’s really the exercise that the organization has to go through, like the mental exercise, to decide that, ‘Yes, this project has value to us. We can see that we’re having to spend money, but we can see the benefit and we can determine that that is of value to us,'” said John Grieser, Twende board president and founder.

At first, Twende was looking at installing a system to offset just 10% of the building’s energy use, about a 25-kW install, which Twende originally thought was a bit of a daunting ask for manufacturers and volunteers.

Serendipitously, the executive director of PRM at the table the day the two groups hashed out logistics happened to be an engineer who used to work in the solar industry. He asked if they could go for 30% or 40% offset instead.

Grieser told the group that size would be much larger than what most non-profits attempt, but that he would check and see if the manufacturer donors would go for it.

“About two weeks later we get a call back from John and he says, ‘Guess what, we’re on for a 40% offset–100 kW rather than 25.’ So we were thrilled,” said Ron Arp, marketing consultant at PRM.

Better yet, even though the install was large, it still would only take five years to pay back.

“We started thinking immediately about the number of meals we could serve, the number of shelter nights that we could provide instead of paying for electricity in years six through 25,” Arp said. “We’re going to be able to provide services [instead], and that really rung true with our entire organization.”

Some PRM residents volunteered on the project, like Rebecca.

Thirteen regional companies sponsored this project by donating either products or labor. SunPower contributed deeply discounted modules, Solectria donated string inverters and IronRidge donated the mounting solution.

This project size required massive people-power, but Twende had no trouble recruiting area solar companies and other industry workers to help. In fact, it had the opposite problem–so many people were willing to pitch in that some had to be turned down.

“We were just blown away at the pent-up supply of people willing to contribute to work like this,” Grieser said. “We pretty much had some volunteer from every competing solar contractor across the state contribute in person on this project.”

Grieser said he observed different solar companies checking out the tips and tricks of their usual competitors while installing side by side. During lunch, the group would convene and talk about their different installation methods.

“I think the collective knowledge base of the industry just rose from working on this project together with everybody,” he said.

One of the most inspiring aspects of this project came in the form of two volunteers from PRM. This PRM site is a women and children’s recovery center, and when the organization asked residents if anyone was interested in helping with the solar project, two women raised their hands right away.

Another PRM resident and volunteer, Brittany

The experience did not disappoint–both women enjoyed it so much that they entered electrical pre-apprenticeship training with local Portland organization Constructing Hope, whose mission is to rebuild the lives of people in its community by encouraging self-sufficiency through skills training and education in the construction industry.

“After a day or two on the roof with one of our volunteers who was there almost every day, these women came down and they were like, ‘This is awesome. This is so awesome.’ And one of them knew right away, ‘This is what I want to do,'” Johnson said.

One of the women, Rebecca, graduated from the pre-apprenticeship program in August and the other, Brittany, will graduate in November.

Twende board member and CED Greentech Pacific Northwest outside salesperson Mike August said the most fulfilling part of the project for him was watching Brittany’s young son watch his mom work on the roof, awestruck.

Brittany’s son flipping the ceremonial switch

“Watching [Brittany’s] kid look up and see his mom up on the roof from down on the playground, and he was just kind of stunned. Kind of like seeing Spiderman on the roof or something,” August said. “Seeing his mom up there doing this cool stuff, he was looking at her like she was a superhero, and that was a cool moment.”

Her son also had the honor of flipping the ceremonial switch to turn the project on for the first time.

“It was probably one of the cutest moments I’ve seen in a long time, the little three- or four-year-old boy with a hardhat on, just all grin as he flipped the switch,” Arp said.

Future plans

Twende doesn’t have plans in the pipeline for another domestic project at this time, but Johnson said Twende is open to the possibility.

“We’re always looking for suggestions or connections to organizations or communities who could greatly benefit from having cleaner, more abundant, more reliable, cheaper electricity through solar,” Grieser said.

The unique pitch Twende has as a solar nonprofit is an intensive vetting process to make sure it’s focusing its time, energy and donations on the worthiest organizations. Grieser used to work at SolarWorld and remembers being flooded with requests for donated modules. It became so overwhelming that it was easier for the company to just say no than to assess each option.

“With Twende, it’s a singular unit that they could turn to and they could make their donations through us to these communities, which we have vetted and selected for long-term success,” he said.

The Portland Rescue Mission is a prime example of a high-quality installation that will help the community in a big way. Arp expressed deep gratitude to all the volunteers who made this project possible.

“To have the solar industry contribute in this way to help address homelessness and addiction recovery in our community is just outstanding,” Arp said. “Here’s a bunch of people who not only care a whole lot about their jobs, but they also care a great deal about their community and the people who live in their community.”

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