Lessons learned from serving LMI communities during the Pandemic

Groundswell works with community leaders to connect families with community solar and the energy bill savings that comes with it in DC and Maryland. These community solar programs — including the DC Department of Energy and Environment's (DOEE) Solar for All program — have been hugely successful over the past year in providing much-needed financial relief to struggling households. Groundswell’s projects alone have saved subscribers more than $25,000 in 2021, while DC’s Solar for All program has saved subscribing households more than $750,000. While this work and savings was years in the making, the timing of those first electricity bill credits for both programs arrived just as the world was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This timing also resulted in unprecedented restrictions, both globally and locally, but thanks to strong leadership within the communities we serve and Groundswell's creativity, households were able to continue to receive savings from those uncertain early days and onward. 

We have learned a lot throughout this last year and a half, and we want to share three of those lessons with other nonprofits, utilities, and municipal governments as the world continues to be shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Energy Equity is a Small Piece of the Puzzle

The success of our community solar programs to date is both an affirmation and a call to action. On one hand, their success affirms the need for these programs and the value they bring to already energy burdened households, many of which were the most heavily affected by COVID-19 and its effects. For example, roughly half of our subscribers are Black and African American women over 55, a group of people disproportionately affected by the health COVID-19's health effects and economic pressures.

Many of the people we serve have no income — or a very small fixed income from unemployment insurance or other programs — available to cover even basic expenses amid closures and lockdowns that further limited normally available resources. While there was a moratorium on disconnections and late fees during the COVID pandemic's most acute stage, residents who could not work because of the pandemic still accrued huge debts from electricity costs during DC’s sweltering summer.

On the other hand, the COVID pandemic has demonstrated that utilities are just one part of a fragile house of cards for many working families and senior citizens. High bills, late fees, and disconnections are not just painful — they can bring the entire stack of cards tumbling down and cause even more financial hardship. Conversely, lowering energy bills can provide the support needed to strengthen households and provide the cash needed for improved financial stability in other parts of their lives. While there are many ways to lower energy bills, providing direct savings from clean energy stands apart as an empowering and immediately effective way to connect households with savings, especially for our most vulnerable neighbors.

Driving Transformative Change 

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed the way we work and live; however, even at its height, we still had to keep our programs running. At Groundswell, we continued to serve our subscribers and enroll new subscribers in an entirely new environment, while also responding to drastic changes in our subscribers’ lives and our own. For instance, on our community solar project at the Washington Order of Discalced Carmelite Friars, we opened up eligibility for no-cost subscriptions to anyone who had lost their job after February 1st, 2020, enabling us to serve a new group of subscribers whose needs had changed suddenly. 

Likewise, how we reached out to potential subscribers shifted dramatically. Groundswell deeply values personal connections with the people we serve, but without in-person sign-up events, we had to find new, creative ways to reach out to current and potential subscribers. Partner organizations have always been crucial to our work, but amid economic hardship and the need for social distancing, one organization in particular stepped up. In January 2021, we reached out to the United Planning Organization (UPO), a DC-based non-profit that provides essential wraparound services to hundreds of individuals and families in the city. UPO helped our team connect with 29 households eligible for no-cost community solar subscribers, and those households began to receive community solar savings before the first cherry blossom bloomed in DC this year.

Serving People and Communities with Joy Matters.

Groundswell believes that it is essential to provide service with care, compassion, and humility. This type of service makes each subscriber’s humanity our top priority, and 2020’s unexpected shift only served to highlight the importance of humanity and the positive mark it made to each of our subscribers' lives. 

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, we committed to an ambitious goal: to welcome each person who joined DC’s Solar for All program with a phone call. Roughly 2,000 people joined the program in 2019 and early 2020, creating a massive challenge for our two person call center. This challenge was exacerbated by the pandemic and periods when our call center staff number fell from two to one, but we kept on working.

Making every phone call was crucial to the success of the Solar for All program, because it gave us the opportunity to listen to the individuals and families that we serve. We learned what made the program attractive to new participants, but we also heard first-hand where it fell desperately short. These conversations alerted us to gaps in social services that left many households feeling desperate, which led us to look for ways we could connect participants to programs and services that they needed and were not aware of. This experience also yielded valuable information about the best ways and best practices when communicating the intricacies of community solar to participants. Our insights into the need for improved communication of related resources has already proven to be a key to this program’s ongoing success, and we believe that it will be at the core of future program successes as well.

Connecting the households we serve with information about additional resources took several forms. First, we worked with partners to develop a list of resources that we could share over the phone or by email with program participants. However, we recognized that a single touch-point over the phone would be inadequate on its own, and so, in order to create stronger relationships with the people we serve and to make these resources easier to access, Groundswell launched a monthly subscriber newsletter which includes resources tailored to the communities we serve. This new resource has proven to be a great way to share timely updates, and we look forward to utilizing it to better fulfill the breadth of community needs moving forward. 

Many DC Solar for All and Groundswell SharePower subscribers who we spoke with said they felt lonely and isolated during the Spring and Summer of 2021, as lockdowns and unemployment robbed all of us of social connection. These feelings were especially profound for seniors living alone, who make up a sizable share of Solar for All participants. While our phone calls were brief, they provided human connection and a chance to share in the hardships and small moments of joy that the pandemic produced. 

Equity, Driving Transformative Change, and Serving People and Communities with Joy lie at the heart of Groundswell's mission to make clean energy futures a possibility for everyone. While the COVID-19 pandemic challenged our ability to provide the level of service that we aspire to, the Groundswell Customer Support team's commitment to these three principles helped see us through an extremely difficult year and fundamentally changed the way we provide service for the better.