It almost sounds too good to be true — clean, renewable energy that stimulates economic activity in underserved communities across the United States. Add to that, the solar panels being constructed by CHERP Solar Works are some of the most technologically advanced on the market, and — wait for it — they will provide free solar energy to the lowest income households across U.S. communities.
So wait, what’s the catch?
No catch. This nonprofit organization wants to change the traditional relationship between energy providers and energy users. They want to put ownership back in the community’s hands. To do this, they’ve also enlisted the help of Seneca Solar, which has recently worked with Indigenous communities in the U.S. so that they can become owners of their own energy assets.
“We see wealth continuing to be extracted from our lowest household income families to the top 1 percent. We see our environment continuing to degrade at unprecedented rates,” says CHERP President and CEO, Devon Hartman.
CHERP's dream is becoming a reality. It recently opened the world’s first nonprofit solar module assembly factory in the world in Pomona, California.
What is CHERP, and what is the nonprofit doing?
CHERP (Community Home Energy Revolution Project) began with the goal to form collaborative partnerships with cities, counties, community organizations and contractors to promote sustainable building practices and reduce fossil fuel use in buildings throughout California and beyond. Now, CHERP Solar Works is building solar panel factories around the U.S.
“We build micro solar factories for nonprofit organizations in underserved communities across the country,” Hartman explains.
In the age of globalized energy production, CHERP wants to bring it back to basics and work locally. By engaging with communities, hiring local workers, producing energy in the community, and providing energy to local households, CHERP wants its activities to benefit local communities to the greatest extent possible.
The plan is to “keep the entire value chain inside the local community so that profits can be recirculated as many times as possible inside the local economic unit,” Hartman says.
One of CHERP’s plans is to provide free energy to the 6,000 lowest income households near its new assembly factory in Pomona, California. Its research suggests that the low-income households in the area spend $90 per month on energy. Removing this monthly expense will create $6.5 million of additional yearly disposable income in the community.
Advanced solar technology
CHERP is also claiming to make “the safest panels on the market.”
Its patented technology is going to remove the problem of hotspots that plagues almost every solar panel made today. Solar panels attract sunlight, but sometimes that sunlight becomes concentrated in one or two spots on the panel. Those “hotspots” heat up much quicker than the rest of the panel, reducing energy efficiency and also creating a safety hazard and fire risk.
“Hotspots can not only get hot, but they can create plasma arcs that will melt through any material on earth, and we can actually burn buildings to the ground,” Hartman explains.
“Our panels will never create a reverse bias or hotspot condition, but also, they will be the safest panels on the market. They will automatically shut down in a millisecond if they do not sense an inverter so they will not create energy, and they will not kill firefighters who have to go on a building,” Hartman continues.
The entire operation at CHERP is a bit of an energy revolution. The organization also wants to see solar panel production return to the U.S.
American-made solar panels
Solar panel technology was invented in the U.S. back in 1954 by three scientists at Bell Laboratories. Ever since then, production of solar panels has slowly shifted away from the U.S.
“Ninety-four percent of all solar panels distributed in this country right now come from overseas,” Hartman says. The overwhelming market leader in solar panel production is China, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the world’s share in solar panel manufacturing.
China is also well ahead in installed solar capacity: It's expected to add up to 90 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar power in 2022, bringing the country’s total installed capacity to nearly 400 GW. By comparison, the U.S. added 3.9 GW of solar capacity in the first quarter of 2022, bringing its total capacity to 126 GW.
CHERP wants to increase U.S. production of solar technology, increase participation in the economy from underserved communities, and advance solar technology. If its ideas catch on, the nonprofit hopes to build factories throughout the U.S. to benefit local communities.
Image credit via CHERP
Andrew Kaminsky is a freelance writer with no fixed location. He travels all corners of the globe learning about the different groups that call this planet home, seeing natural wonders, and sharing laughs with the people he finds along the way. An alum of the University of Winnipeg's International Development program, Andrew is particularly interested in international relations and sustainable development. In his spare time you are likely to find Andrew engaging in anything sport-related, or finding common ground with new friends over a craft beer.