Location United States (based in Washington DC)
Name Solar United Neighbors (SUN)
Date Initiated 2017 (official launch date); but its origins go back to 2007
Shared or Co-Governance SUN’s mission is to help make energy clean, local, equitable, affordable, and reliable for everyone, notably including those who think they can least afford it.  They started as a small neighborhood initiative and grew into a large grassroots movement with an “army of solar advocates” and a national organization with a national membership program. They work to connect citizens with the tools and resources necessary to start renewable energy projects in their own communities. At its core are co-ops in which groups of neighbors “go solar” together and get a bulk discount, making solar more affordable and accessible, and benefiting the local economy.  One report suggests that this reduces the cost of going solar by 20%. While SUN manages the process with the installer, co-op members are encouraged to handle all other aspects of the process but with the strong support of SUN.  Members take part in educational programs, volunteer work, and advocacy, and SUN offers trainings and resources to help them along the way. Although SUN is now a national organization, it remains very committed to maintaining its emphasis on local communities and empowering individual solar owners to govern and own their own energy sources.  Rooftop solar allows individuals to literally install their energy source on their own home, and in this way, it places control and ownership in their own hands. SUN provides them with the skills, know-how and support to do this, but the goal is to place ownership and control in their own hands and at an affordable cost, which is possible due to their community-based co-op system.  This system brings community members together to co-decide on a solar installer and to combine their resources to order solar panels in bulk, which can save individuals up to 20% of the cost.
Relationship to State SUN has a mixed, but mostly antagonistic, relationship with the state. In many cases, it actively fights against proposed or adopted legislation and lobbies to get such laws withdrawn or rejected.  It is also openly against, and often very vocally lobbies against, large public utilities, which though often privately owned or based on a public-private partnership, in many cases are supported, subsidized and/or in close collaboration with public officials. In some cases it has effectively stalled monopolistic moves by such public utilities, which local and state officials are support. As such, they are often in an antagonistic relationship with the state. Moreover, they do not receive any financial support from the government sector, according to their website. Instead, as previously stated, most of their funding comes from private foundations and earned income from their own programming.  In other cases, however, it works alongside the state to get it’s message out and in some cases, the state is supportive of this.  But, at least from the information contained on their website, they do not receive
Pooling of Social and Economic Resources Solar United Neighbors is committed to making rooftop solar more affordable and accessible to all. The way it works is to form co-ops; co-op participants then pool their bulk purchasing power to select one installer through an open, competitive bidding process. Co-op participants compare each proposal and decide which is best for the group as a whole. This process ensures that everyone receives a quality installation at the best price available. According to SUN’s website, for every $1 spent, local communities save $44 “because installing solar invests money in the local economy, and keeps more money in families’ pockets.” As such, SUN is committed to principles of social justice and equitable distribution of solar energy; this is core to its mission. It can not only be described as an organization committed to energy efficiency and solar promotion, but is also very much committed to making rooftop solar accessible and affordable to all.
Local Need(s) or Services Provided Despite that SUN is now a national organization, it’s work is entirely local and community-focused.  In addition to their nine state-based programs, which help individual communities in those nine states (including Washington DC) solarize their homes through offering resources, technical support, and training, they work with each community to help them advocate effectively for their rights as solar owners.  The needs and idiosyncratic details of each community must be taken into account when doing this, as much of SUN’s advocacy work involves fighting against whatever industry giant is dominating the energy sector in each community. They must know and understand the needs, challenges and resources of each community before attempting to help them, train them as solar advocates, and help to push for policy reform; as such, taking into account the local needs of each community they work with is essential to SUN’s work and mission.  Moreover, their mission is focused on individuals and individual communities; they use a grassroots model to expand solar installations and push for pro-solar policy changes. They goal is to empower individuals and individual communities to be their own advocates and take control of their own energy sources, and this can only be done by understanding, and taking into account, the local needs of each community and neighborhood they work with. To further this goal they organize many local community events: rallies, info sessions, hosting tables at community farmers’ markets, locating individuals to testify in their local councils, offering “solar happy hours,” creating local “solar help desks,” organizing local press conferences, mobilizing the local media to feature articles on their efforts, and a range of others.
Digital Infrastructure, Open Data, Other Aspects SUN, as solar energy co-op, is by design and necessity, extremely high tech in their work and knowledge base.  They are fully versed in the most cutting edge technology pertaining to solar energy and well connected to highly skilled installers, developers and energy engineers and scientists.  Their website and online presence is more sophisticated than many community-based organizations — though of course, now they are a national organization with branches in 9 states– and they make many of their resources available online for free to anyone wishing to learn more.  Their website itself offers a wealth of information and services, and can point people in the right direction with respect to any question they might have about going solar. Much, but not all, of their data is open and accessible without fee; though they do charge a modest membership fee (as of 2017) for those wishing to become members; and once a member, that person can access additional information and support from SUN.
Comments SUN is a powerful example of a successful project that grew from a very small, neighborhood based project into something much large.  However, in doing so, I’m not sure whether it’s outgrown the model that the Co-City project is interested in. It is based in Washington DC, but has branches in nine states; yet it has one model that is applied to all sights and its overall installation and project design applies in all places where it operates.  Moreover, while the community that seeks SUN’s services is involved in the solarizing process, SUN and its leadership team, and specifically the ones based in Washington DC, remain the primary decision-makers and drivers of that process. As such, the community is not as actively involved in the governance and operations of SUN as I’ve seen in other models, which are more community-based and focused.  SUN is interested in pushing its agenda nationwide, that is one of its goals; and while it represents the voices of individuals and individual communities, its mission and mandate is much broader and bigger than any single community or group of people. It’s first and foremost an advocacy group, or that is what it has become; and it’s now a national advocacy group, pushing for the spread of rooftop solar panels.  Its connection with local communities seems a less of their focus than its original, early, founding days, though still important to be sure.
References and Sources

Website: here.

Facebook: here.

Twitter: here.

Catalogue for Philanthropy: here.

Article in Solar Power World (October 2017): here.

For additional news articles about SUN see: here.




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