Seneca Nation Residential Solar Program
Irving, N.Y. | 200+ kW
The 2023 Residential Solar Project of the Year, as voted by the readers of Solar Builder, is the Seneca Nation Residential Solar Program in Irving, New York.
The short story: The Seneca Nation received a grant to use toward renewable energy projects and contracted with GreenSpark Solar, located in the Greater Rochester region of New York, to install PV systems up to 10 kW in size for eligible members at a serious discount.
“We met a lot of families that 100% would not be going solar if this contribution was not happening,” says Katie Stelick, GreenSpark Solar residential sales manager.
Phase one of this unique partnership is ongoing, with over 20 homes committed to going solar and 200+ kW of installations anticipated by year’s end.
That 200+ kW is just the beginning. Phase two of the program will occur in 2024. But even that 200+ kW isn’t really the beginning for GreenSpark and the Seneca Nation — this is just another series of installs in a long-term collaborative relationship, according to CEO Kevin Schulte.
“For about 7 or 8 years, we’ve been working with the Seneca Nation to look at opportunities across their sovereign territory and some of their business dealings not on sovereign territory,” he says, rattling off the 1.8 MW wind turbine, the 2 MW solar array, the off-grid solar + storage system for the fish hatchery …
“Seneca Nation has been an amazing partner because, both at the leadership level and an individual level, there is a deep adherence to protecting Mother Earth,” Schulte continues. “We looked at all of the different opportunities they have and just asked, ‘how can we help?’”
Starting with respect
Before we get back to the project, know this: GreenSpark is a stellar company. Founded in 2002, GreenSpark was built by entrepreneurs with a mutual love and respect for each other. Their business decisions have always stayed grounded in that beginning — hence being a certified B Corp, a designation that values a triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.
“Treating people right and taking on business practices that benefit the environment not only helped us gain and retain employees, but they actually helped us gain business and partners in the process,” Schulte says.
GreenSpark is comprised of three divisions: 1) an EPC division that builds mostly 5 MW community solar farms with multiple portfolios of 25+ MW currently in progress (~85% of the business), 2) a growing C&I division, and 3) a residential solar division.
“We also have a deep desire to really crack delivering solar to low-income families wide open,” Schulte says. “Not only is there tremendous opportunity from a carbon perspective here, but we’re helping families in need gain wealth and cost savings in their journey.”
Which leads us back to the Seneca Nation program.
The Seneca Nation receives the grant for renewable energy projects. They contact their partners at GreenSpark to strategize a plan. That plan: Use the grant + the investment tax credit (ITC) to reduce the raw costs for homeowners going solar in the Nation by 70% — this was pre-Inflation Reduction Act.
In mid-2022, as the IRA talks evolved, so did this plan. “Hey, we could make that grant money go a lot further if we utilize some of the terms of the IRA,” Schulte recalls. “So, we leveled up.”
IRA incentives in play:
• Low-income community
• Sovereign land
• Energy community
After tallying up a potential 40, 50 or 60% tax credit, less grant money is needed per system, which opens up the program to more members of the Nation than originally planned — and at a 90% savings instead of the initial 70%. That is a payback period of two to four years. For reference, payback for a typical upstate New York residential solar PV system is eight to 15 years.
Nation members are also able to partner with the local Seneca Nation of Indians Federal Credit Union (SNIFCU) for financing, which eases burdens of the upfront costs while keeping the economic benefits local to the Nation.
If that’s not awesome enough, Stelick extols other virtues:
“With the IRA and the ownership structure of this program, the Nation will own the systems for seven years to recoup the tax benefits. It’s a big impact on everyone. Nation members didn’t have to worry about getting the tax credits back. And from the operations and maintenance (O&M) side, the Nation handles the maintenance for those seven years.”
This arrangement also helps ease any hesitation about investing in solar PV technology.
“They trust the Nation, and they know they are standing behind it and then don’t have to worry about making that huge upfront investment,” Stelick says.
Last but definitely not least, these solar installations will have a truly lasting impact for these families, well beyond our usual talk of “payback” periods.
“Families on Nation territory pass down a lot of the land and their houses to different people in their families,” Stelick reminds. “They see the broader picture of solar in general.”
For any program like this, on sovereign land or in a suburban neighborhood, Stelick recommends doing multiple phases.
“We had a decent amount of leads originally, but now with the projects popping up, and the IRA stretching the grant, a lot more people are coming out and showing interest,” she says. “For phase 2, we’ll do more education. Attend meetings. Tell people about the program. You want to work a phase one and phase two into these types of programs because of how people come out who didn’t sign up for it originally when they start to see their direct neighbor getting it.”
The GreenSpark and Seneca Nation partnership won’t stop there either.
“We’re looking at EPA funds to blow the doors off this,” Schulte says — more community solar, solar for their community complex, or the ice rink, or another fish hatchery, or several of their casinos, or, or, or …
“It’s just an amazing partnership,” Schulte concludes. The Solar Builder editors and readers agree.