Ypsilanti

Solar Moonshot Program funds numerous solar installations for Ypsi nonprofits and churches

Thanks to an anonymous donor and facilitation by local grassroots organization Solar Ypsi, several Ypsi organizations have received $25,000 grants to fund new solar installations. 
Thanks to an anonymous donor and facilitation by local grassroots organization Solar Ypsi, several churches and nonprofits in Ypsilanti have received or will soon receive new solar installations. 

The effort began in 2020, when Solar Ypsi founder Dave Strenski received an email out of the blue from a man in San Diego who wanted to fund a solar installation in all 50 states in a project he was calling the Solar Moonshot Program. He wanted Strenski's help getting one installed in Michigan. The Solar Moonshot Program is funded by Left Coast Fund and managed by Hammond Climate Solutions

In 2020, Strenski helped facilitate a solar project at Second Baptist Church in Ypsilanti, as well as connecting Solar Moonshot to contractors and nonprofits in Illinois and New Mexico for solar projects there. 

This year, the list of Ypsi solar projects is growing, with five organizations having already been awarded $25,000 grants from Solar Moonshot. Projects are already completed at the Growing Hope offices on Michigan Avenue, the Ypsilanti Housing Commission's Hamilton Crossing apartment complex, and Riverside Arts Center (RAC) in downtown Ypsi. Additionally, early childhood educational foundation HighScope has received funds, and construction kicked off last week. And finally, Metropolitan Memorial Baptist Church in Ypsilanti has received funds, with installation to come soon.
Hamilton Crossing Community Manager Latasha Dexter stands in front of a solar installation there.
"We appreciate Solar Ypsi spreading the word about the Solar Moonshot Program, which has helped nonprofit organizations across Ypsilanti afford the switch to solar power, reducing climate injustices while inspiring others to strive toward a zero carbon future," says Tara Hammond, founder and CEO of Hammond Climate Solutions. "These solar projects lower operating costs for the nonprofit organizations that are reinvested into the Ypsilanti community while mitigating impacts of the climate crisis, stimulating the economy with local green jobs, and contributing to a more just and livable future.”

Solar Ypsi also facilitated Solar Moonshot Program applications for a number of other nonprofits and churches in southeast Michigan that haven't yet heard if they'll be funded. Those include the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit, the Ypsilanti Thrift Store, Highland Cemetery in Ypsilanti, First United Methodist Church in Ypsilanti, the Ypsilanti Seventh-Day Adventist Church, St. James Church of God - Christ in Ypsilanti, Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels, First Baptist Church of Ypsilanti, and Melvin Walls Manor in Ypsilanti Township.

"Dave Strenski is a solar hero," says Cynthia VanRenterghem, executive director of Growing Hope. "He found out about this opportunity and approached Growing Hope and really helped us make it happen."
Solar panels on the roof at Growing Hope.
VanRenterghem says there's already a solar installation on the roof of Growing Hope's roasting house in front of the Marketplace Hall where Ypsilanti's Tuesday Farmers Market takes place. She adds that Growing Hope staff had had a long-time dream to put solar panels on the farmhouse on Michigan Avenue that serves as Growing Hope's administrative offices. 

She says Strenski's knowledge of state and federal rebate programs was instrumental as well. Nonprofits and churches don't pay taxes and therefore can't take advantage of tax credits. That means an installer like Chart House Energy can be brought in so it can receive the tax credit, own the solar equipment, and lease it to the nonprofit or church. After a certain period of time, ownership reverts to the church or nonprofit.

VanRenterghem says Growing Hope's offices have only been solar-powered for a little over a month, so staff aren't yet sure what the magnitude of savings will be.

"But definitely during the summer months, there should be no reason we aren't covering all our electrical needs and putting power back into the grid," she says.

Strenski says Solar Moonshot is open to anyone in the U.S., not just Ypsilanti, so the staff at Hammond Climate Solutions became suspicious after seeing so many applications from Ypsilanti associated with Strenksi's name.

"They called me one time and wondered who I was and [if I was] making money from this," Strenski says. "I told them no, I was just trying to make it happen."

The first batch of five grants had no strings attached, but Hammond Climate Solutions is now requiring some sort of local matching funds for future projects. Still, Strenski says the two-page application is "stupidly simple" compared to other grant applications he's seen. He knows the form so well and tends to know the answers nonprofits are likely to provide ahead of time, so he has the application process down to a science and can crank one out in under half an hour.

Barry LaRue is involved with three of the finished or upcoming projects: those at RAC, Highland Cemetery, and First United Methodist Church.

LaRue says that, if funded, the Highland project will offset all the electrical use for both the cemetery's maintenance building and the Starkweather Chapel. A member of First United, he says he feels "pretty confident we'll be able to make those two projects happen."

LaRue says the Ypsilanti Historic District Commission has been generally favorable to installations, especially those like the RAC project, which has no visual impact on the street view of the building, since a parapet hides the roof installation.
Dave Strenski stands among the solar panels on the roof at Riverside Arts Center.
The installation at RAC is nearly complete, and LaRue says that, after it gets a final inspection, it should start supplying a large chunk of RAC's energy. The solar installation won't meet all of RAC's air conditioning and heating needs, but it will reduce the arts nonprofit's costs. 

"And that leaves us more money to deliver to programming," LaRue says.

Not only do the solar projects relieve a financial burden on churches and nonprofits, but they can be a learning opportunity.

Brad Rushlow is the maintenance supervisor for HighScope and was lead on their solar project. He says participating in the project has been "exciting."

"Bringing sustainable energy to our preschool program will positively impact [students'] education by teaching them the importance of creating environments that will help our planet live and grow in healthy ways," Rushlow says.

When asked why the Ypsilanti area seems so keen on solar energy, LaRue says, "It's Dave and [Solar Ypsi volunteer] Steve Pierce and Solar Ypsi."

"There would probably be a handful of solar projects happening anyway, but the lion's share came about because of Dave pushing," LaRue says. "And I don't think he'd be insulted about me saying he bugs people into submission. He doesn't leave people alone because he's so dedicated to it."

VanRenterghem says nonprofits are often interested in solar power but they have competing priorities, and the grants that nonprofits seek are rarely targeted toward solar installations.

"I think that's why this Solar Moonshot program is so interesting," she says. "Dave recognizes that this expenditure is always competing with program expenditures. I can't tell you how much we appreciate Dave's activism on this. We're fulfilling a dream we've had to solarize the farm for over 10 years now. To have it drop in our lap is just really wonderful."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.