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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

He couldn’t install solar at home, so he helps nonprofits do it instead

This solar champion shows community groups how to tap Inflation Reduction Act incentives so they can afford solar panels.
By Alison F. Takemura

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Man in shorts and polo shirt standing in from of 5 rows of solar panels on top of a building roof.
John Smillie started helping nonprofits get solar panels after he found couldn’t install them on his own roof. (Photo courtesy of John Smillie)

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Canary Media’s Electrified Life column shares real-world tales, tips and insights to demystify what individuals can do to shift their homes and lives to clean electric power. Canary thanks Lunar Energy for its support of the column.

John Smillie had long been concerned about the climate crisis. But in 2019, he started to feel really anxious. He’d always thought bigger, more powerful actors would eventually step in to solve the problem, but reading the news about intensifying wildfires, floods and other disasters, he realized climate change was hitting hard now.

His unease began to affect his personal life. My wife told me, You’ve got to do something. This isn’t good for you,’” said the 36-year-old finance manager and father.

So he took her advice, volunteering with advocacy nonprofits Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the League of Women Voters and throwing himself into decarbonizing their family’s home. In the years since, Smillie has replaced most of the home’s single-pane windows with double-pane ones, sealed ducts, added insulation to the attic, and installed a heat-pump water heater and a heat-pump air conditioner/​heater — steps that together have enabled them to slash fossil gas use by 84 percent and their home’s calculated CO2 emissions by 46 percent.

Smillie, who lives in the 16,000-person town of Crawfordsville, Indiana, had also initially considered getting solar panels, but his roof stymied him. The home’s dormer windows take up too much roof space and would shade the panels, rendering them far less efficient.

As he looked around at other buildings in his neighborhood, it struck him that he could still install solar panels — just not on his own roof.

The Montgomery County Youth Service Bureau was located right down the street and had a flat roof that was perfect for solar. He pitched the idea to the nonprofit’s executive director Karen Branch and offered to donate $30,000 — the amount he’d have spent on a solar array for his own house — to help the organization solarize.

We were obviously very surprised and excited” to be offered this huge gift” to adopt solar, Branch said. It was a no-brainer for us,” she said.

In August 2022, the youth bureau’s 9.9-kilowatt solar array went live. It has cut utility bills this summer by about half, saving the nonprofit $150 per month on average, Branch said.

This past July, the group’s power bill for its 11,000-square-foot building was only $120 — even less than the bill for Branch’s 2,500-square-foot home, she said.

Those saved dollars funnel back into the organization’s programs, which provide mentoring, court advocates, supplemental food and more. The nonprofit aided 3,200 youth last year.

Smillie’s donation has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving,” she said.

Climate solutions at the community level

Helping the Montgomery County Youth Service Bureau get solar panels showed Smillie that he could leverage his passion for clean-energy solutions not just to reduce his own carbon emissions, but also those of his broader community. He wanted to continue multiplying his impact like this, but he wasn’t sure how to go about it.

Then last summer, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the most ambitious climate legislation in history. The law makes it easier for nonprofits, schools and other tax-exempt entities to access clean-energy tax credits. Despite not having a tax bill, these organizations can now get 30 percent of the cost of a solar project back from the federal government as a direct payment.

Smillie’s county of Montgomery, the site of a shuttered coal plant, also qualifies for an additional 10 percent tax-credit bonus, because the federal government classifies Montgomery as an energy community. And, if an organization installs equipment that meets requirements for being partially manufactured in the U.S., it could get another 10 percent off.

Smillie saw a huge opportunity. He learned as much as he could about the new climate law, especially through the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which offered trainings about the complex legislation. Armed with that knowledge and his background in finance, he started looking for other nonprofits that he could help to go solar.

Next up: The local Boys & Girls Club

Last fall, Smillie and Helen and Marc Hudson, two other members of the League of Women Voters, decided to team up and approach the Boys & Girls Club of Montgomery County about installing solar panels. Over lunch with the organization’s leadership, Smillie ran through the numbers.

I have a finance degree. I do discounted cash-flow models for a living,” Smillie said. So he was able to show how much solar would cost the club, taking into account the IRA direct-pay incentives, and what the organization’s savings would be — about $2,000 per year under the local utility’s net-metering program. All told, the $34,000 array would ultimately have an expected annual rate of return of 11 percent, or better than the stock market, according to Smillie. He and the Hudsons also offered to donate a combined $9,000 to help finance the project.

We were very excited and jumped all over it,” said Troy Mitchell, president of the board of directors of the Montgomery County Boys & Girls Club.

The 10-kilowatt solar array went live last month. The panels are a tangible example of climate action for the youth the organization serves, as well as a power source that helps the organization fulfill its mission, said Erica Cummins, the club’s interim director.

The less that we’re spending on things like utilities, the more dollars that can go directly to [supporting] our kiddos,” she said.

Solar panels for the people

These days, Smillie is a climate-action whirlwind — albeit in a calm, analytic way. In April, he spoke to an audience of nonprofit group staff members, some of whom drove over an hour for the event, to illuminate how the IRA makes the transition to clean energy much more affordable. In his talk, he also publicized other grassroots opportunities, including a solar-purchasing cooperative he helped launch and a solar grant fund he inspired the Hudsons to create and seed with $10,000.

Man in blue polo shirt gestures with hands in front of screen with a slide titled "New Provisions in the IRA."
In April, Smillie gave a presentation to local nonprofit groups on incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act that can benefit them. (St. John's Episcopal Church, Crawfordsville, Indiana)

Smillie has a host of other projects in the hopper: He’s working to solarize another nonprofit and a local school, pitching the police and city to electrify their vehicles, and speaking out against overly stringent setback rules that have quashed utility-scale solar and wind projects in his county.

Smillie wants others to find ways they can spur their communities to decarbonize, too, whether by donating directly, helping a nonprofit figure out how to go solar, or educating folks about opportunities to switch to clean energy, he said. If he can help people take advantage of the IRA’s climate benefits at the local level, so can others.

And the climate angst? It no longer grips him, Smillie said; action was the antidote. His volunteer work has been a great channel to deal with the anxiety and positively contribute directly to the community.”

Climate change is the largest collective-action problem in human history,” Smillie said. While tackling it feels like pushing a gigantic boulder uphill, I’m one more pair of hands.”

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Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.