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River Valley Community Solar Project: Bringing Low-cost Solar Power to LMI Communities

Apr 25, 2024

Aerial view of the River Valley Community Solar Project

The power of solar

Headshot of Stephen Gates, found of Neighborhood Power
Stephen Gates, founder of Neighborhood Power

In our modern world, power is essential. Having access to electricity improves our health, education, comfort, access to food, and economic development. It has undoubtedly made life better for many people, but a major problem lies with how we are producing it.

Fossil fuels are still providing most of our global energy needs. Even as it continues to contribute to harmful levels of global carbon emissions, the world’s sixty biggest banks have poured over $5.5 trillion into the fossil fuel industry over the past seven years.

But people like Stephen Gates are proving that this doesn’t have to be the case, and that healthier, renewable alternatives exist and can be scaled – including solar energy.

Stephen is the founder of Neighborhood Power, a Maui-based renewable energy micro utility that provides clean, affordable power to communities across the United States. “Instead of taking from the Earth, you are receiving sunlight,” says Stephen. “It’s just a different philosophy, and it resonates with me. So that’s been the ethic of my career.”

Stephen’s interest in renewable energy began years ago when he was doing an apprenticeship building Earth houses at Cal Earth. While living with Native American students who were also in the program, he heard their stories of how coal companies were displacing people and harming their native land. “I couldn’t believe that this was happening in our lifetime,” says Stephen. “And why was it happening? To create electricity for Southern California.”

Stephen made it his mission to figure out how to undercut coal and make renewable energy accessible for as many people as possible. In 2000, he joined EE Solar and began developing solar projects. “We were selling the equipment, and the loan payment was less than the utility bill, so we were cheaper than coal right away.” Then in 2009 Stephen founded Neighborhood Power to sell solar by the kWh for between 5% to 60% less than current utility rates, with no upfront investment to their customers.

Aerial photo of the River Valley Community Solar Project
The River Valley Community Solar Project in Woodburn, Oregon

How community solar projects make renewable energy more accessible

Community solar projects, also called solar farms, provide affordable and clean power to communities that might not be able to own their own solar panels. Stephen and his team at Neighborhood Power began building community solar projects with a focus on making them efficient and affordable. “We like to create power as close to where it’s used as possible so that we cut down on line-loss, which is wasted power,” he says.

To make their power as accessible as possible, they avoid things like traditional credit checks. “We try to look at solutions so everyone can have solar, especially mainstream commercial locations like churches, schools, and shops,” says Stephen. “They sign a 20 to 25-year contract to buy power at a fixed price that’s cheaper than what they already pay, and they aren’t out of pocket any money.”

Additionally, all of Neighborhood Power’s community solar projects in Oregon provide power to low-to-moderate income community members at a reduced cost.

The River Valley Community Solar Project

Located in Woodburn, Oregon is Neighbored Power’s River Valley Community Solar Project which has 144 solar towers that oscillate as the sun moves across the sky and collect power from both the top and bottom sides of the panels. “These towers follow the seasons,” says Stephen. “They are steeper in the winter and shallower in the summer, and they rotate to track the sun from morning to night. So, they are always trying to be perpendicular to the sun to harvest as much power as possible.” Soon, they'll even have a flock of sheep that will do all the mowing below them.

The power from the River Valley towers is piped straight into the grid and gets used quickly and efficiently. In alignment with their mission of making the power accessible to all, 30% of River Valley’s power goes to low-to-moderate income families at a reduced cost.

Getting River Valley up and running had its challenges in the beginning. It was one of four community solar projects that Neighborhood Power was working on at that time. River Valley was pushed into the second phase of the Oregon Community Solar Program, leaving it out of the financing of the other three projects that won space in the first phase.

“Typically, we have to do big pools of projects to secure financing, so these smaller projects are a little bit harder to finance,” explains Stephen. Because of delays, the project was left out of the perm financing created to fund all four projects and was left stranded. “Beneficial State Bank stepped in to save the day and provided a permanent loan to help get the project over the finish line,” says Stephen.

“It was a pleasure to work with Stephen as well as the staff of Neighborhood Power,” says Jae Easterbrooks, VP and Earth Services Team Leader at Beneficial State Bank. “Stephen is one of the most environmentally conscientious developers of renewable energy we’ve worked with at Beneficial State Bank. He has a problem solver’s mindset that is terrific to support as a triple-bottom-line bank. With the climate crisis reaching an ever-more critical stage, the world needs many more ‘roll up their sleeves’ doers like Stephen and Neighborhood Power to meet the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement.”

A future where clean energy is the norm, not the exception

Today, Neighbor Power serves 49 states along with Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They are ushering in a new era of clean energy, proving that solar can be affordable and scaled.

While changing our global power infrastructure is far from easy, Stephen shows us that when you have a dream to change the world and the determination to make it a reality, the impact is real. And with the climate crisis accelerating, the time to transition away from “taking” and towards “receiving” is now.

Read more about Neighborhood Power and their community solar projects, including River Valley.

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