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Kids ask their parents for many things: sugary snacks, the latest iPhone—but Anya Schoolman’s son asked for something that would ignite a national movement: “Mom, can we go solar?"
Solar United Neighbors, an organization representing solar homeowners, community-based solar projects, and clean energy, was founded by Schoolman in Washington, D.C., in 2007. Her son Walter and his friend Diego were just 12 years old when they watched Al Gore’s documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth", but they were moved to make a difference for the environment. Through her research, Schoolman realized that instead of converting just their home for solar power, which was a complicated and expensive process, maybe it would be easier if she and her neighbors banned together. So Walter and Diego walked up and down their neighborhood of Mount Pleasant in D.C., recruiting 45 homes to join a “solar co-op.” Together the neighbors learned about the technology—and challenges—behind installing solar panels.
Soon, Schoolman began getting calls from all across the greater D.C. area, and eventually the country, from people who wanted to replicate their model. Today, Solar United Neighbors (SUN) has surpassed 2,700 in solar panel installations for homes and a small number of businesses, with a presence in eight different states including Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.
"I never would have imagined ten years ago, when my son suggested we go solar, that this would be the outcome. But at the same time, it makes perfect sense,” says Schoolman. “Our energy system is undergoing a fundamental transition and solar homeowners are at the forefront.” Walter, now about to graduate from college, has seen the effects of his childhood determination take shape: “It has been amazing to watch what has grown from a small group of neighbors meeting at my house to talk about going solar into a national organization with tens of thousands of supporters,” he says.
Going solar benefits our environment, our health, and our economy, not to mention our wallets. “Air pollutants [from power plant emissions] like nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), and fine particulate matter (PM) can damage the respiratory system and contribute to many other health complications,” says Ben Delman, the Communications Director of SUN. Greenhouse gas emissions are also of course a huge contributor to climate change. In addition to allowing energy-independence, installing solar panels gives homeowners state and federal incentives, including a 30% federal tax investment credit. It has a positive impact on the job market, too: in a growing industry, SUN alone is responsible for creating 572 jobs in the field, including construction workers, roofers, and steel manufacturers.