Asheville Woman Powering Up Interest in Solar Power Across North Carolina

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The solar energy movement is sweeping North Carolina, and it’s all thanks to energy entrepreneur Katie Bray.

Last year, Bray, 27, launched her own company, Sawtooth, Inc., linking nonprofits and community organizers working to boost solar power use with companies able to install solar panels and help homeowners with other cost-saving projects.

Bray launched the Solarize Asheville nonprofit campaign last year, which helped homeowners band together for the purpose of lowering the cost of switching to solar.

“Prior to our Solarize campaigns, growth in residential solar power in North Carolina or the Southeast had been flat in recent year,” Bray said. “This is pretty huge. Now there’s a real movement among homeowners, nonprofits and small businesses toward solar power.”

Solar has become a popular energy alternative, with residential solar power installations reaching 145,000 in 2013, a 69% increase over the previous year, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

Once installed, a solar power system requires little or no maintenance at all, most especially if there are no batteries being used. The system will provide electricity quietly and cleanly for 25 to 40 years.

The idea for Solarize Asheville began as chats between Bray and Charlie Coggeshall when they were both working at the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute, an environmental think tank in Asheville.

Bray asked why the South was so slow to get solar power, but their cheaper electric prices and conservative energy policies weren’t helping. Coggeshall directed her to a program he’d heard that was successful out west — Solarize Portland, where grassroots campaigns organize neighborhoods to bid for discounts on solar installations.

“I thought Asheville was the perfect place for this, and Katie just ran with it,” said Coggeshall, now living in Portland and working remotely with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Solarize Asheville’s participation was enthusiastic, as 400 residents expressed interest, resulting in 52 contracts to install solar power. It inspired a movement around the state, with community organizers wondering how they could set up their own Solarize campaigns in their area.

Bray soon learned, however, that solar panels are out of reach for many homeowners, without the proper tax liabilities or sun exposure. With an upfront investment of up to $15,000, the math is just not in their favor.

But Bray didn’t let that stop her. She researched what community organizers in the energy field are doing nationwide, and as a result, tweaked her program to create Clean Energy For Us, bringing in not just solar installers, but energy efficiency companies.

“It’s not as sexy as solar panels, but more insulation, sealing spaces and wrapping ducts can make a real difference for more homeowners,” she said.

She formed Sawtooth, and designed a software system to vet homeowners and connect them with installers. Her company takes a fee from contractors to provide potentially hundreds of clients at a time.

Bray’s movement is spreading across the state of North Carolina. A new campaign, Clean Energy For Us Western North Carolina launches Oct. 6, and the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association is seeing counties such as Buncombe, Wake, and Durham sprouting more rooftop solar installations, compared to the rest of the state.

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