Channel Square: Where Sustainability Meets Affordability

A guest blog entry by NRDC Stanback Fellow Samuel Corwin

Despite the Supreme Court-imposed stay on the Clean Power Plan and recent legislative opposition to environmental initiatives, the nation’s capital is pressing on towards a sustainable future.

The most recent success came in southwest Washington, D.C., with the installation of a 240-kW solar photovoltaic (PV) system on the roof of the Channel Square apartment complex. This achievement was commemorated on Wednesday, June 22, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the roof of Channel Square. Attendees including yours truly were treated to complimentary green sunglasses and Sun Chips prior to hearing Mayor Muriel Bowser speak amidst an array of solar panels against the backdrop of an old exhaust tower.

Channel Square’s new rooftop solar installation will save the building $20,000 annually
Photo by Samuel Corwin

The $1.3-million solar investment was celebrated by pioneering developer NHT-Enterprise along with co-developers Somerset Development Company and Jonathan Rose Companies. Representatives of these organizations were joined at the ceremony by financial supporters of the project, including the Wells Fargo Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and DC Sustainable Energy Utility.

Further support was provided by Enterprise Community and Investments which helped finance the development through a combination of loans and equity investments in renewable energy tax credits. Equity investments typically come from tax credit investors such as banks. Enterprise, however, invested its own money due to the unwillingness of banks to invest in solar, despite clear tax benefits and long-term savings.

Speaking in front of a sizeable audience comprised of building tenants and representatives from supporting organizations, National Housing Trust (NHT) President Michael Bodaken emphasized that the solar installation stood at the intersection of affordability and sustainability: “We’re committed to making sure our customers don’t spend more than they should for utility bills. We’re committed to a clean environment.”

Less than a year ago, Mayor Bowser renamed DC’s Department of the Environment; it’s now the Department of Energy and Environment. In doing so, she stressed its plans to help improve DC residents’ access to energy efficiency and solar power. On Wednesday, she marked progress towards these goals by cutting the ribbon at Channel Square, now home to the District’s largest private rooftop solar installation. Speaking at the ceremony, Mayor Bowser stressed that while expanding sustainability is one goal, doing so affordably is key.

Historically, lower-income citizens have not reaped many benefits from sustainability initiatives, particularly switches to renewable energy. The newly-unveiled solar installation atop Channel Square helps remedy this imbalance. The system will provide roughly 20 percent of Channel Square’s energy and result in $20,000 in annual savings from avoided operating costs. These savings are being passed on to more than 500 low and moderate-income residents at Channel Square, preserving housing affordability.

Starting with energy efficiency upgrades maximizes the effectiveness of the system. Improvements include installation of energy-efficient lighting and a new heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Over the lifetime of these appliances, Channel Square is expected to avoid $2.7 million in utility fees. By starting with energy efficiency upgrades to reduce the energy demand from the building, the solar array can provide a larger proportion of the building’s energy. For any customers looking to invest in solar, starting with energy efficiency upgrades is a must. It’s the best way to maximize the potential of solar PV.

As some politicians oppose renewable energy advances in states such as Colorado and New York, projects such as the solar installation at Channel Square exemplify the importance of progress despite such potential setbacks. .

And in addition to the environmental benefits of renewable energy, the solar installation at Channel Square provides benefits that everyone should be able to get on board with: Reducing the building’s operating costs and lowering bill payments for its tenants while simultaneously stimulating the local economy through thanks to the labor and materials for installation of the system.

With partners such as the National Housing Trust continuing to pave the way for cost-effective, sustainable development, renewable energy has a bright future that can provide benefits to everyone. 

About the Authors

Deron Lovaas

Director, EEFA, Resilient Communities, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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