How New Solar Power Projects Support the Homeless

Yves here. It’s gratifying to see New Mexico take a forward step in combatting homelessness by providing them with housing and using solar power to make it even more affordable. The only sad note is that they can do it only on a modest scale compared to the need.

By April M. Short, an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others. Produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Homelessness has been on the rise nationwide due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, and in New Mexico it was already climbing prior to the pandemic. New Mexico experienced a 27 percent rise in homelessness between 2018 and 2019, which is the “largest percentage increase” in homelessness in the country according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.”

One effort toward sustainable solutions to homelessness in New Mexico comes in the form of a unique community effort and fundraising campaign, which is working to bring solar power to Santa Fe’s 12-bed, 2.5-acre permanent housing for the homeless, Casa Milagro. The organization was founded in 1995 and works to bring supportive, therapeutic and safe housing to people who have experienced homelessness in New Mexico and beyond.

“We are part of a coalition of people who are responding to displaced people,” said Desirée Bernard, executive director of Casa Milagro, in a fundraising video about the project.

Casa Milagro helps house community members who have experienced homelessness and face mental health challenges and offers them support services. The effort to solarize the space seeks to make another part of the organization’s mission real: sustainability.

The plan is for the local solar company, Positive Energy Solar, to install a 16-kilowatt solar array at Casa Milagro. This installation size will cover the annual electricity usage of the home and eliminate the organization’s monthly electricity bills, allowing the organization to dedicate that portion of its budget to provide direct care and support for the residents.

In the beginning of the fundraising video, a resident named Cris is shown talking about how the Casa Milagro residents are “thrilled” that the home will become energy independent.

“We haven’t always been welcome in this community,” he says. “Now, the whole feeling toward Casa Milagro has changed and they’re looking to us for some sort of leadership, almost. They want to know how we did it, and how we turned a bad situation into this thriving, solar-driven community house. We are headed for the stars; we are going solar.”

Another resident, Nic, says in the video that “it’s about feeling safe and secure. You don’t feel that when you’re homeless because you don’t have family members. One of the first things to go is [the] trust of people, because how, in a society such as ours, can we even afford to have homeless people? Poverty at that level is violence. One of the things that this place [Casa Milagro] does is [it] pulls you out of the cauldron of fear. It makes you safe. It validates your existence as a human being, and it gives you free range to be a contributing member of society in a way that makes you feel good.”

The initial fundraising campaign to solarize Casa Milagro hoped to raise $57,000 in grassroots donations in 57 days. However, the day after the fundraising efforts were set to launch in March 2020, New Mexico’s Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued the first COVID-19 emergency orders, so the initiative paused. At the time of publication, Casa Milagro had succeeded in raising about a third of its funding for the project, according to Mariel Nanasi, the director of New Energy Economy (NEE), which is a New Mexico-based organization that supports alternatives to the exploitative models of energy generation. As part of the campaign to solarize Casa Milagro, NEE has been helping raise funds for the project, which is part of its larger SOL for All! effort that brings solar power to local community venues via grassroots fundraising initiatives.

“Desirée does such a beautiful job. They [Casa Milagro] have an organic garden, they have art, they have community, and offer all the ways that are healthy for people to live,” says Nanasi. “It’s a model place, and that’s why we wanted to support them.”

Since 2011, NEE has organized solarization campaigns across New Mexico annually, including projects for the Crownpoint Chapter House on Navajo Nation, the Taytsugeh Oweengeh Intergenerational Center at the Pueblo of Tesuque (including their senior center), the Hahn Community Center at the Pueblo de Cochiti, small farms, and multiple fire stations in the Santa Fe area, among others. Nanasi says the solarize projects serve a dual purpose as they demonstrate the viability of energy alternatives to the public and bring awareness to local communities and organizations to shed light on important social and environmental issues.

Nanasi says getting fire stations and firefighters on board with solar has helped to change some political attitudes and influence policy shifts around energy in New Mexico. After they solarized the Tesuque Fire Station in 2013, the station’s electricity bill dropped from more than $115 a month to $8.65 a month. After three months, the utility company sent the station an $11 check because they had overproduced solar energy. This piqued the interest of Santa Fe County officials. The county has since applied state funding toward solarizing fire station after fire station. In 2013 the commission also passed a resolution supporting community solarprojects.

“It’s not only that these projects are great in and of themselves, but that they have really led to policy changes,” Nanasi says. “And I will tell you this: the only solar project that former Republican Governor [Susana] Martinez ever allowed for capital outlay was Santa Fe County’s solar project because the firemen asked for it.”

After each solar installation is complete, a community celebration takes place, and Nanasi says those celebrations, as well as other opportunities for community engagement that solar projects offer, have had a ripple effect when it comes to solarization projects.

“Once you do one [solar project] and people can see it, it exposes the vision of what’s possible, and then people are like, ‘Let’s do another one, and another one,’” she says.

New Energy Economy’s next solar energy project is the Montessori-influenced, nonprofit Keres Children’s Learning Center. The center is oriented around teaching Cochiti Pueblo children and families their Indigenous language of Keres, and preserving their Indigenous culture and heritage, and teachings. Nanasi says these solarization projects lend themselves well to schools, since they use electricity primarily during the daytime, when solar power is strongest. She can envision local solarize projects cropping up across the country and beyond and says since the model their organization uses is centered on crowdfunding through Indiegogo, it lends itself easily to replication.

In October 2020, the UN warned that continued inaction on the part of world leaders to reverse the climate crisis will result in the planet becoming an “uninhabitable hell” for millions of people. Given the worsening climate crisis, the necessity for an alternative, less extractive and damaging sources of energy is dire, and Nanasi says their organization’s theory of change is a combination of fighting against the expansion of the oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy industries, and demonstrating the vision of what’s possible at the local scale to move society toward 100 percent renewable energy.

“We’ve won cases in court to fight the utility [Public Service Company of New Mexico] here,” she says. “They’ve asked [for permission] to build new gas plants three times, and we’ve beaten them every single time. We’re focused not only on saving people money, but also opposing more investment in fossil fuels. We have to resist extreme extraction, which is what our country is still, unfortunately, doing in every way. Not only are [energy companies] literally extracting uranium, coal, gas and oil from the ground with demonstrable devastation and destruction, but they’re extracting the wealth of the people and giving it to the one percent. Energy companies are [some of] the wealthiest companies on the planet. They have more money than most countries, even countries combined. And what do we get from that? We get not only climate destruction, but we get the undermining of democracy.”

She says fighting against what’s wrong is only half of what’s necessary for change.

“We also need to expose the vision of what’s possible,” she says. “We’re a tiny little nonprofit, but we’ve been doing these solar projects year after year because we want to go to localized, decentralized energy that creates self-sufficiency.”

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  1. James Simpson

    This looks a bit iffy from here in comparatively sun-free NE England. Solar infrastructure is not sustainable any more than fossil fuels.

    Not only are [energy companies] literally extracting uranium, coal, gas and oil from the ground with demonstrable devastation and destruction

    – and do the materials for solar panels arrive free from the very air we breathe? As the excellent documentary Planet of the Humans shows clearly, solar energy itself is free but converting it into electricity is hugely inefficient – no more than around 20% – and requires extracting the basic materials from around the world using traditional, fossil-fuel-heavy, polluting, exploitative capitalist industries.

    There’s no mention in the article nor in the linked glossy, glib advertisement begging for money about batteries. Does Casa Milagro switch everything off when the sun goes down? What kind of batteries does it want to use? Perhaps, as the name suggests, they rely on supernatural energy rather than electricity. Renewable energy is a little cleaner than fossil fuels but it is not a sustainable solution to climate change. That comes with drastic cuts to the energy we all use, which means an equally drastic change to our political, economic and social systems. Socialism is at its heart.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The NE of England is a relatively good area for solar generation, what matters is not temperature, but hours of sunlight. A friend of mine has powered a cluster of holiday cottages in the North Yorkshire Moors for nearly a decade now with no problems whatever, its virtually maintenance free and has long ago paid back his original investment (helped with government subsidies at the time). His chickens particularly love the nice dry soil under the panels.

      Planet of the Humans is not a reliable source for any information, it was a rant, not a science program. There are literally thousands of studies you can find on the embodied energy of solar power as compared to others, unless you are involve in bad faith selectivity you will find that most have an energy payback time of between 1.5 to 4 years, which compares very favourably to almost any other form of energy generation or energy reduction strategy.

      As for storage, there are plenty of small scale storage solutions available, in particular for off-griders in the US. Most are costly, but they work fine, and the costs are declining rapidly year on year.

    2. Basil Pesto

      Pardon my ignorance but is there much in socialist doctrine about reducing energy consumption, or has it just been tacked on ad hoc in the last 30 or so years? Put another way, if socialism had been the hegemonic political-economic system in the west for the last ~100-150 years, would we somehow not be careening towards an energy/climate crisis? (if we would be, presumably there’d be a capitalist minority claiming that only they can save us)

      1. juno mas

        Depends on the type and tone of Socialism. Maybe look to the Nordic countries? (Not for solar, of course, but conservation of resources.)

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          I suspect that is more the Nordicism than the Socialism which drives the Nordic countries’ ethic and esthetic of Conservation Living. And part of that may be due to living in a traditionally very resource-limited harsh northern place.

          Weren’t the basic Euro-Western socialisms, such as Soviet Socialism, based on the Conquest of Nature and the as-vast-as-possible use of natural materials and energies? I remember reading once where a young Soviet Citizen in the semi-free waning days of the USSR is quoted as having said . . . . “We build huge machines to dig coal and ore out of the earth. We burn the coal to smelt the ore into metal in order to build huge machines to dig coal and ore out of the earth.” So yes, core Euro-Western Socialism would have put us in the exact same place, global cooking-wise speaking.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      If we were to cut our use of energy to what renewable energy could renewably supply, we would be closer to much lower levels of carbon skyflooding. And some of that renewable energy could be from traditional pre-solar-panel means. Passive sun-tempered house design. etc.

  2. The Rev Kev

    This sounds like an interesting approach this. Instead of having massive solar panel programs in a region, do it piecemeal as in a fire station here, a homeless shelter there. As people see the benefits you may have more and more people going with this idea until you reach a critical mass of users.

    That Casa Milagro sounds like an interesting place and they have lots of empty space at the front of their 2.5 acre block for future expansion-

    1. tegnost

      “…do it piecemeal as in a fire station here, a homeless shelter there”

      In a way piecemeal is the only way to start as every time a utility has to send an individual a check for their contribution to the grid an MBA’s head explodes. Currently any acceptable critical mass has to be of paying customers…don’t even look at all those rooftops and parking lots. PK mentions dry dirt under panels, I would rather see the panels exist somewhere that’s already been paved over. It’s a nice move by new mexico, though, a state with one of the worst economies in the union…

  3. Rod

    The NEE mentioned has the right strategy:

    Nanasi says getting fire stations and firefighters on board with solar has helped to change some political attitudes and influence policy shifts around energy in New Mexico. After they solarized the Tesuque Fire Station in 2013, the station’s electricity bill dropped from more than $115 a month to $8.65 a month. After three months, the utility company sent the station an $11 check because they had overproduced solar energy. This piqued the interest of Santa Fe County officials. The county has since applied state funding toward solarizing fire station after fire station. In 2013 the commission also passed a resolution supporting community solarprojects.

    PR Publicizing the potential of AltEnergy to school children/police/firefighters/ teachers etc is the companion to technical change we need ASAP.

    Interesting funding model for this
    We are a 501c3, guided by HUD guidelines for Permanent Supportive Housing

    Have already secured, or be in the process of securing SSI or SSDI benefits.

    Be able to pay ⅓ of their income as rent, plus $200 to contribute to communal food, household goods, and other program expenses.
    but definitely -not- a group home. they seem to be undergoing some administrative changes

    1. tegnost

      These guys are not going to go along with any dreamy projects. I have a once friend who’s a big shot there now and he explained it to me very clearly. see above… And they are anchored in the southwest where solar generation is best. They plan to make all of the money.

      “Sempra Energy’s mission is to be North America’s premier energy infrastructure company. With more than $60 billion in total assets in 2019, the San Diego-based company is the utility holding company with the largest U.S. customer base. The Sempra Energy companies’ more than 18,000 employees deliver energy with purpose to over 35 million consumers worldwide. The company is focused on the most attractive markets in North America, including California, Texas, Mexico and the LNG export market. Sempra Energy has been consistently recognized for its leadership in sustainability, and diversity and inclusion, and is a member of the S&P 500 Utilities Index and the Dow Jones Utility Index. The company was also named one of the “World’s Most Admired Companies” for 2020 by Fortune Magazine.”

      This is pretty funny fta…
      “”Our planned investment in Chile is very strategic to the overall long-term growth of SGID and we are fully supportive of the Chilean government’s efforts to protect its citizens from the spread of COVID-19,”” Electricity protects people from covid I had no idea..

    2. Dirk77

      Having lived in New Mexico, with the high elevation coupled with the dryness makes the sun like a laser beam, I’m shocked that the state hasn’t yet made solar mandatory on all new buildings at least. Commenter James Simpson’s concern above about batteries is noted, but energy storage is the most active research area in renewable technologies right now. But in the meantime, going to bed after nightfall and getting up at dawn I’m sure will improve the mental and physical health of people immensely. And all the Reddit day traders could do something really productive and help out with the installs or technology development.

  4. juliania

    I am thrilled; thank you, Yves. Two of my sons have been involved with the homeless here in New Mexico, and I am very proud of them. Thank you again for bringing this urgency forward. Such a positive read for my Saturday morning!

  5. elissa3

    So glad to see these initiatives in my Santa Fe backyard. Most projects here are local, but there are a few good bills now before our current 60 day legislative session that have a chance this year, mainly because a bunch of ancient DINOs, who were blocking them in committee, were primaried and are gone. A Community Solar bill would allow a company or cooperative to set up very local solar for those who either can’t afford to install panels themselves, or where the terrain/infrastructure don’t allow it, passed the Senate Conservation Committee on Thursday. It still has a ways to go, and the local electric monopoly, PNM, and oil and gas interests have a very strong voice in our state.

    Mariel Nanasi, referenced in the article, is a New Mexico treasure. Hyper-competent, fearless–gives one hope that a few such individuals can actually change things for the better.

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    This post makes me feel good for a few seconds — but then I start to have trouble getting excited about twelve beds provided by a private charity. Is this one of Bush senior’s 1000 points of light? What kind of country provides so little for its destitute? That the US requires homeless shelters, let alone private charity provided homeless shelters, violently disturbs my digestion. “Once you do one [solar project] and people can see it, it exposes the vision of what’s possible…” offers cold comfort.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      It is not this project’s fault that powerful groups of people resolutely prevent rolling this kind of thing out all over the country.

      It is the fault of those resolutely obstructive groups of powerful people.

  7. Tom Bradford

    I looked at going self-sufficient with solar last year but couldn’t make it economic – and I’m at 41.5’S (the equivalent of Barcelona in the northern hemisphere) with >2,400 sunshine hours annually.

    In New Mexico you’re going to be more concerned with air-conditioning during the day than you are heating overnight, and even in winter the day is long enough to cover much of the evening limiting demand for lighting and covering TV use etc. In NE England, and even here a thousand miles nearer the equator, the array size and battery capacity to collect enough on a short winter day to cover evening and morning demand for heat and lighting, was prohibitive especially given the loss of battery capacity over time – 20% over the first 10 years – and the near-future cost of supplementing or replacing even if the panels last 25 years. And if you add to that the environmental costs of mining the elements you need to build the battery, and of eventually having to dispose of its carcass….

    Batteries are always going to be the Achilles’ heel of solar, particularly at the individual level unless you’re going to keep a connection to the grid, which defeats the object. Solar’s best implementation, particularly in northern climes, is as a sizeable optimised array as part of a pumped storage hydro system. In summer when rainfall and water-flow is low excess solar power is used to pump what water there is back up hill for release through turbines overnight. In winter with more rain and waterflow what solar there is supplements the hydro production.

    1. juno mas

      Maybe take a look at this ECO-Home:

      Designed and built 30 years ago. Still going strong! PV installation is now modular (array and components). If your state has net metering and high electricity costs an energy conservation optimized (eco) home is doable

      If you go to Web Publications link at the website you can see the construction process and interior photos. Back then only lead/acid batteries were feasible and you can see the inverter and safety elements are all distinct parts. Today all that you see in the closet sized space is now contained in one large wall-mounted cabinet.

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