Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Free-solo climber Alex Honnold has another mission: Energy equity

The renowned climber translates his passion for heights into high-impact solar projects, powering change one community at a time.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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A man with a light skin tone wearing a red shirt and gray pants climbs a sheer rock face. A large mountain range looms behind
(Jimmy Chin)

Alex Honnold is no stranger to challenges. Most famously, in 2017, he became the only person to have climbed Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot vertical rock formation, El Capitan, without ropes or harnesses, a feat chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo.

Last summer, Honnold completed another impressive feat: the first ascent of Ingmikortilaq, a 3,750-foot rock face in Greenland, near the Arctic Circle. That climb was part of an expedition to gather critical data on the impact of climate change in the region. Honnold was accompanied by glaciologist Heïdi Sevestre, who collected ice and rock samples for research on ice melt and glacier loss. The journey was documented in Arctic Ascent, a National Geographic series that follows the group as they explore some of the most remote landscapes on Earth.

Leading a scientific expedition may be a new turn for Honnold in his decades of rock climbing, but he’s long been concerned about climate change. He took an interest in environmental nonfiction early on — Bill McKibben’s 2010 book Eaarth particularly resonated with him. I remember that idea sticking with me — that in my lifetime, what I think of as Earth will no longer be the same,” he says, referring to climate impacts such as worsening wildfires, droughts and storms.

In 2012, Honnold made a pledge to direct one-third of his annual income to environmental philanthropy through the Honnold Foundation. From the outset, he knew climate change would be a major focus. I was just looking for something useful to do in the world,” he explained during a call in January.

But Honnold also wanted to do something that improved people’s lives.

On climbing expeditions around the world, he has seen firsthand how lack of access to electricity affects communities. Globally, around 760 million people don’t have access to electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, achieving universal access by 2030 will require an average annual investment of $30 billion, but current funding falls far short of that. What’s more, securing capital to support energy-access projects is often most challenging in the least developed countries and regions, where the need is greatest.

As he was getting his foundation up and running, Honnold realized that funding small-scale solar projects in underserved communities could be a way to both advance the energy transition and tackle issues of energy access, self-reliance and economic opportunity.

I spoke with Honnold in mid-January when he and his wife, Sanni McCandless, were expecting their second child at any moment (baby Alice Summer Honnold was born earlier this month). I caught him during his final weeks of work before taking some time off to care for the new baby to talk about his mission of expanding access to solar energy around the world.

The Honnold Foundation has flourished over the past decade. As of 2023, it had six full-time employees and a $3.6 million budget, $2.3 million of which was distributed through direct grants.

When I started the organization, I felt like a big part of the challenge was just helping that transition [to clean energy] happen. Now it’s clear that the transition is happening, but it’s equally clear that that transition won’t help many people on earth,” says Honnold. That’s the role for organizations like the Honnold Foundation — to make sure that as we transition to a more environmentally friendly world, we don’t just replicate the same model that’s left so many people behind in the past and that all humans are uplifted equally.”

Each year, the foundation evaluates hundreds of grant proposals, and then selects a handful to fund from across the Americas and island nations worldwide. Typical projects include solar microgrids and off-grid rooftop solar for homes and community organizations.

Since 2020, the Honnold Foundation has supported over 70 partners in 27 countries, territories and U.S. Tribal lands. The foundation makes a point of offering the funds without restrictions so that recipient organizations can utilize the money as they see fit. This approach reflects one of the foundation’s fundamental principles: trust.

As a climber, Honnold learned the importance of trust early on. You don’t climb with someone unless you trust them 100%…you’re literally entrusting your life to their hands,” he explains. We basically trust [our partners] to do what is best for their communities, which to me seems obvious, but apparently, that’s not how all philanthropy is.”

Honnold’s ease with risk (not a surprise if you’ve ever watched him climb) is another guiding principle for the foundation. As a climber, you’re used to failing all the time, and if you’re not failing, then you’re not trying your hardest,” Honnold says. With philanthropy, you have to be comfortable with some degree of failure, or else you’re just not having the most impact.”

One of the largest projects the Honnold Foundation has helped get off the ground is the first cooperatively managed, community-owned solar microgrid in Puerto Rico. Designed and built by local nonprofit Casa Pueblo, the microgrid provides solar power and backup batteries for 13 small businesses in Adjuntas, assets that are particularly valuable to the community given Puerto Rico’s unreliable and climate-vulnerable central grid. The Honnold Foundation led a $1.7 million investment in the project, including technical support and donated panels and batteries.

Arturo Massol-Deyá, executive director of Casa Pueblo, told me during a Canary webinar in 2022 that the project is not just about getting reliable power: It is about collective survival; we have been helping the community to gain some means of energy self-sufficiency in which the technology and infrastructure are owned by the people.” Honnold says the Adjuntas microgrid is an example of the kind of proof-of-concept projects the foundation can help fund and which will hopefully inspire similar projects elsewhere or even lead to policy changes. In fact, at least three other comparable microgrid projects have been completed or are in progress in the towns of Maricao, Ciales and Castañer.

In the foreground is a rooftop with solar panels installed. In the background are buildings and tree-covered hills.
Solar panels on a rooftop in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico contribute to a microgrid. (Peter Walle, Honnold Foundation)

The Honnold Foundation has also partnered with at least eight organizations in the Amazon, a critical ecosystem for the global climate. In 2020, the foundation gave Kara Solar, an Indigenous-led organization in Achuar territory in the Ecuadorian Amazon, funds to build a prototype for a solar-powered canoe. In the Amazon, boats are a vital form of transportation, but they usually rely on diesel engines that are noisy, polluting and require a lot of maintenance. Today, Kara Solar has a fleet of six electric boats and four solar centers” that provide supplemental boat charging and power for Indigenous villages.

Beyond its pollution-reducing benefits, the new solar boat fleet is helping to prevent deforestation. The Amazon is under constant threat from road building, mining and logging, but support for new road construction ebbed once locals had better access to boat transportation. Kara Solar sees solar power as a way to help provide economic opportunity and advance conservation goals. The organization now aims to expand its eco-friendly fleet through partnerships with Indigenous organizations in Brazil, Peru, Suriname and the Solomon Islands.

A sleek canoe with an overhand covered in solar panels traverses a body of water
Kara Solar solar canoes in the Amazon rainforest (Honnold Foundation)
An overhead aerial view of a canoe as it navigates a winding river surrounded by trees
Kara Solar solar canoes in the Amazon rainforest (Honnold Foundation)

Community organization ATAIC in Ilha das Cinzas, a remote island in the middle of the Amazon River, received funding from the Honnold Foundation in 2020 to install rooftop solar, solar-powered agriculture systems and solar-powered internet for the community. The access to new energy resources and the internet was a catalyst to bring young people — many of whom had left to find work in cities — back to the island. Emily Teitsworth, executive director of the Honnold Foundation, told me the project is not only about providing a more sustainable and environmentally friendly form of power and getting rid of things like diesel generators. It is also investing in the longevity of their community and their Indigenous culture and way of life.”

It’s a well-known fact that development projects often struggle to keep going once funding from overseas benefactors dries up. Mindful of this, the Honnold Foundation has worked to sustain relationships with partners, offering repairs or replacements on equipment as needed. The foundation also prioritizes workforce development with each project it takes on. Training locals in solar installation and maintenance, for example, cultivates community expertise, making projects more likely to succeed.

In the U.S., the foundation has worked with Native Renewables, Indigenized Energy and other tribal organizations to support paid workforce development programs for solar technicians and installers. A huge concern for most of these communities, in addition to climate and energy access, is economic sustainability and growth. So people see this as a clear pathway to making sure that they can participate in…the renewable energy economy,” says Teitsworth.

Three young girls with medium skin tones and long dark hair gather near a rooftop solar panel
A rooftop solar installation at the MAIA Impact School, Central America’s first secondary school specifically designed for Indigenous girls (Honnold Foundation)

In 2023, the foundation reviewed more than 300 applications totaling $28 million worth of potential projects, a huge pipeline that far exceeds its giving capacity. For Teitsworth and Honnold, closing this gap is a critical goal, and getting the word out is part of that effort. This year, the foundation is working with Kara Solar on a film about their solar canoes, and foundation staff will be attending New York Climate Week for the second time, where Honnold will interview grantee partners to highlight the benefits of community-based solar.

Honnold says that while the conversation around energy in the U.S. is very polarized at the moment, everyone can get behind cleaner air and water, more parks and less deforestation. He also highlights the appeal of energy independence, emphasizing the potential for individuals to generate their own electricity and hopefully save money in the process. Honnold says he’s learned to lean into different aspects of solar energy depending on who he’s talking to, but at the end of the day, he believes win-win solutions like solar can garner broad support.

With a growing public profile (and an Instagram account with 2.6 million followers), Honnold now finds himself answering more questions about his work on climate and the foundation than about climbing, which he welcomes. You never need to be more famous,” he says. It doesn’t allow you to do any of the things you’d like to do, but it does allow you to have a much bigger impact. And so, in that way, it makes it all a little bit more worthy.”

Maria Virginia Olano is chief of staff at Canary Media.