C&I Ground-Mount Solar Project of the Year 2021: Buckhorn Children & Family Services

Buckhorn, Ky. | 20.48 kW

The installation of a 20-kW ground-mounted solar array, taken within the scope of the energy market at-large, is pretty ho-hum. The Buckhorn Children & Family Services solar project though — our C&I Ground-Mount Project of the Year — shows the value of zooming in on small-scale distributed solar projects and measuring impact beyond MWh and grid services. With the right people involved, one ho-hum 20-kW system can help guide local policy, provide job training and generally showcase solar as a viable alternative to coal in a rural area, in which everyone is still skeptical it will work.

Developer: Mountain Association, Everybody Solar
Contractor: HOMES Inc.
Modules: Astronergy
Inverters: SolarEdge
Mounting: ASTM A53

The opportunity

This project initially hit my inbox in June, pitched as “solar in the heart of coal country,” which is a pretty rad pitch considering all that implies. That stood out to Everybody Solar too, which is a nonprofit dedicated to bringing solar to other nonprofits at no cost to them. With thousands of nonprofits worthy of support, how do they decide where to use their limited resources?

“It’s often driven by the nonprofit themselves, and the Buckhorn project involved them reaching out,” says Youness Scally, executive director at Everybody Solar. “Then we look at logistical stuff. Can we do it? Then, the costs and the savings impact for the nonprofit, but also, what is the story? How is this having an impact beyond just this one project?”

Buckhorn Children & Family Services, a nonprofit that operates residential treatment programs, foster care and adoption services and intervention prevention services in Kentucky, checked all of those boxes and more.
“We fell in love with the idea of this one. It’s our first in the heart of coal country, and it contributes to a more sustainable path forward in the area, creating jobs and highlighting what people in the area didn’t know about going solar. And on top of that Buckhorn does great work in the community,” Scally says.

Solar takes a village …

Everybody Solar is based in California. They helped handle the logistics and arranged the panel donation from a location on the East Coast. From there, Mountain Association, HOMES Inc., Solar Moonshot-Hammond Climate Solutions and Max Solar took the solar ball and are still running with it.

“This is not just one organization,” says Seth Long, executive director of HOMES. “Many folks are working together to get this done, and it’s unprecedented here, really. This doesn’t happen every day in eastern Kentucky. There’s not much around Buckhorn — lots of mountains and pretty scenery —but that’s it. It’s pretty motivating moving forward to see what other projects we can do.”

Housing Oriented Ministries Established for Service, or HOMES, provides energy-efficient homes and home repairs for low-income families “in a region where the housing market is broken,” Long says. They look for new ways to put people to work. To that end, they recently expanded into selling solar installation services.

“We stumbled on solar in a way, looking to offset our operational costs,” Long tells us. “With three power rate increases in five years, things weren’t looking good for us. Working with Mountain Association, Josh convinced us solar was the way to go on the spread sheet, but I was still skeptical. They do this in California. Do they do it here in Eastern Kentucky?”

HOMES borrowed money, put solar up and right away saw a big savings beyond what they borrowed. Now a convert, Long put solar on his barn and saw the same results.

… and local leadership

In the end, Buckhorn Children & Family Services is now the sole owner of a 20-kW solar PV system that is greatly helped by the 1:1 net metering rate in place when the permit was issued. That last part was not a given at the outset.
In 2020 and 2021, Kentucky Power, a subsidiary of American Electric Power, which serves some of the poorest regions of the Kentucky, sought to reduce the retail value of solar by up to 70 percent, which could have killed solar in the region before it got going. The utility argument painted net metering as only a value to the wealthy, but the Buckhorn project demonstrated that doesn’t have to be the case.

Mountain Association, a community development financial institution, does a lot in the area. It lends money and offers business development and jobs training services. It has an energy division that helps people go solar or save money on bills. They also engage in “research, communications and advocacy for policy and narrative change to demonstrate what’s possible in Eastern Kentucky.”

This rate case was a big deal for the area and for Buckhorn, and it was a chance to start changing the solar narrative.
“We applied to jointly intervene in the rate case, but we were also trying to get this install completed before the public service commission ruled on this case,” says Josh Bills, commercial energy specialist at Mountain Association. “We knew as soon as it did, Buckhorn would not be grandfathered. In the rate case, this was an example of what distributed solar can mean for those customer generators that are nonprofits with missions, and what it means for operations savings and having compounding effects.”

“I was at the ribbon cutting,” Scally says, “and it struck me — someone on the board of Buckhorn said, ‘I never thought of solar working out here. Now I might look into it for my home.’”

Grid-ties that bind

HOMES is an example of those compounding effects. To build out its solar installation services, HOMES brought on Clayton Johnson (or Fuzz), who worked through Mountain Association’s internship program that transitions individuals out of coal mining. Workforce development was a piece of this Buckhorn project because it was Fuzz’s first chance at a ground-mount installation.

“There are not many jobs available in our area, and raising a young family here is increasingly challenging,” Long says. “Having these opportunities keeps people gainfully employed and allows them to keep living where they grew up.”
At the time of our chat, Long sounded optimistic about the solar market in the area and its opportunity to provide a fresh start for many in Eastern Kentucky.

“When a trusted business leader like Mountain Association can pull out spreadsheets and show actual numbers, not projections, I think that’s sold quite a few solar systems for us in itself,” he says. “Fuzz has been busy.”

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