Students from KIPP DC College Prep tour a solar facility and speak with leaders involved in the project's construction on Dec. 19. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)
Students from KIPP DC College Prep tour a solar facility and speak with leaders involved in the project's construction on Dec. 19. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

During her environmental science class earlier this year, high school senior Devyn Jones and her classmates put together solar-powered lights, which shone inside their handmade cardboard houses. On Dec. 19, she and a few other students gathered amongst the massive frames of a real-life solar facility under construction across the street from their school, KIPP DC Preparatory. 

Jones said the opportunity to hear from government and private sector leaders about the inner workings of the Community Renewable Energy Facility (CREF), and see the site up close, was worth standing out in the freezing cold.

“I wanted to learn about how solar energy works in a deeper way and meet the people who are kind of in charge of making this stuff happen,” Jones, 17, said.

Making solar projects happen has proved a challenge in the last two years, though. A federal proposal to expand tariffs on solar panels from Southeast Asia last year caused major difficulties for the solar industry. Pandemic-related supply chain disruptions for raw materials like copper compounded the issue. 

Mike Brown, owner of NEO, said the team had initially expected the solar panels to arrive by now. Instead, the small group of students touring the site got to look around at a vast array of big, empty metal frames. The new target date for the panels’ installation is mid-February, and the facility should begin producing energy before the end of 2023. 

“This project has been a long, slow project,” said Bracken Hendricks, CEO of Urban Ingenuity, a District-based company partnering with the Department of Energy and Environment to create the facility. 

This particular CREF also faced a set of unique engineering and regulatory challenges. The facility sits atop the Brentwood Reservoir, which holds about 25 million gallons of the District’s drinking water. The solar panels’ frames stand on two concrete blocks weighing a little over 2,000 pounds each. To make sure that the reservoir’s “ceiling” could support the weight over time, engineers needed to carefully identify the underground support pillars and install the panels directly on top of them. 

The location on the reservoir also made for some less tangible — but no less challenging — organizational complications. DC Water owns the reservoir and co-owns the solar facility with National Housing Trust (NHT) Ingenuity Power, which itself is a joint venture between three separate private and nonprofit entities. But the Department of Energy and Environment runs Solar for All, the program that enables energy produced at community solar facilities to lower District residents’ utility bills. And the DC Sustainable Energy Utility helps coordinate and provide oversight. 

All that’s to say: the project involves a lot of moving parts. But the many partnerships between agencies and private sector organizations may also produce benefits for residents. The facility will provide energy savings for more than 500 District households through the Solar for All program, which serves low- and moderate-income residents. When finished, the new CREF in Ward 5 will become one of the largest community solar facilities in the city (though the massive solar site at Oxon Run still holds the top spot. 

Speaking at the press conference, DC Water vice president Maureen Holman touted the project as a revenue source that will take pressure off of ratepayers. That’s particularly important given the agency’s multibillion-dollar plans for capital improvement projects over the next decade. Those plans include, among other things, replacing every lead pipe in the District.

Department of Energy and Environment Director Tommy Wells speaks in front of rows of frames waiting to hold solar panels once long-delayed materials arrive. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

Tommy Wells, the director of the Department of Energy & Environment, also praised the partnerships between D.C. government agencies and the local utilities that coordinated the project. Wells included not only DC Water, but also Pepco and its parent company Exelon in that praise, despite official complaints filed in March by the D.C. Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the People’s Counsel. Those complaints alleged that Pepco had systematically mishandled solar projects.

“[Some places] have utilities that are nameless and faceless. These utilities are our partners, and they are really leading not just DC, but the nation, on what’s possible,” Wells said. 

The District has become a leader on clean energy and climate change in recent years. This summer, the D.C. Council passed legislation to limit natural gas installations in new buildings and codify ambitious emissions reductions targets. In 2017, D.C. became the world’s first LEED Platinum City

But neither reading the legislation nor hearing about the accolades can quite measure up to the experience of standing among rows upon rows of frames just waiting to fill up with solar panels. 

“Trying to save the planet — I kind of just think that’s cool,” Jones said.

Kayla Benjamin

Covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine writing stories...

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