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How a D.C. law firm installed solar panels to help low-income people save on utilities

Herb Stevens, left, and Jeff Lesk, lawyers with Nixon Peabody, stand on the roof of the firm's offices in Washington.
Herb Stevens, left, and Jeff Lesk, lawyers with Nixon Peabody, stand on the roof of the firm's offices in Washington. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Ninety-three million miles from Earth is the Sun — the source of all life, shining for the benefit of everyone. Only in the District does it take a labyrinthine bureaucracy and an army of lawyers to make it pay.

Jeff Lesk and Herb Stevens, of the law firm Nixon Peabody, decided to install solar panels on the firm’s office in the Chinatown neighborhood and to make them benefit the city’s most vulnerable residents. Using their legal superpowers, they succeeded.

And they can even explain the complex process simply.

“We just produce the energy here, Pepco turns it into dollars, and we send them to Southeast and Southwest Washington,” Stevens said.

Nonprofit installs solar panels on roofs of lower-income households — free

Complex solar regulations and incentives made the plan possible. D.C. residents with solar panels can sell energy credits to utilities such as Pepco, which must produce 1 percent of its energy from solar sources. Solar credits generated in one part of the city can be sent to another.

A company seeking federal tax credits fronted Nixon Peabody money to build a 182-kilowatt system, about the amount of energy needed to power 30 homes. The law firm also got a grant from the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment and formed a nonprofit to run the program, which plans to add additional panels on other buildings.

The firm will offer solar credits to two other apartment complexes, but it hasn’t announced the locations. This second phase is expected to benefit about 300 residents.

It’s a bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine that demands more paperwork than photosynthesis, but is workable nonetheless.

“Our model hasn’t been used before,” Lesk said. “We’re donating those energy credits to people who need them.”

The credits help Pepco customers pay to keep the lights on at Copeland Manor, a community a few blocks south of the Benning Road Metro station in Southeast Washington. Edna Wimberly, 71, who has lived in the complex for nine years, pays $700 a month in rent and lives on a fixed income.

After she filled out a form and gave it to her building’s manager — providing her Pepco account number so the credits could be routed to her account — her bill started going down. Once as high as $50, it is now sometimes paid in full.

“It helps me out a lot — an awful lot,” said Wimberly, a former nursing assistant at Washington’s VA Medical Center. “Through God, it all works out.”

Elizabeth Askew Everhart, senior development manager at Mission First Housing Group, a nonprofit D.C. housing developer, said the program was “initially a little bit confusing for all of us,” but there was no downside to participating. The nonprofit connected Nixon Peabody to Trinity Plaza, a 49-unit development off Interstate 295 in Southwest.

Residents at Trinity earn less than 60 percent of the D.C. area’s median income, so even a small break on an electric bill is noticeable. But installing solar panels at Trinity would be expensive and, depending on the condition of the buildings’ roofs and storm water runoff rules, nearly impossible.

Nixon Peabody was better positioned to take the lead.

“It certainly adds up over the course of a year to have meaningful impact,” Everhart said. “It’s almost like getting $20 off rent every month.”

The law firm’s plan isn’t the only one bringing the benefits of solar to those without panels. Another nonprofit group began installing solar panels on the homes of up to 100 low-income D.C. residents last year . Meanwhile, the District’s energy and environment department has awarded grants for solar panel installation on churches and over surface parking lots under a program called Solar for All.

Dennis Brown, a green energy consultant at Pepco, said the Nixon Peabody project is a blueprint for similar projects in the pipeline.

“They’re the first to do this in the District,” he said.

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Dan Reicher, a Stanford University law professor who specializes in energy policy and finance, said he had D.C.’s first legally connected solar-panel system at his home in the Chevy Chase neighborhood in the 1990s. This was uncharted territory: Connecting the system to the electric grid, now a common home improvement, proved difficult and the panels, which were installed incorrectly, collapsed under the weight of snow.

Reicher, a former assistant secretary of energy during the Clinton administration, said “there are some creative things going on” when governments find ways for people who don’t have solar panels to benefit from them.

“If you separate the physical system from the benefits, they can be shared,” he said.

Stevens recalled looking at a map of D.C.’s solar installations at a conference five years ago. Most were in the city’s more affluent areas. A natural resource shouldn’t be reserved for those with means, he said.

“The sun is so obviously one that we all share,” Stevens said. “It isn’t ever just shining on one area of town. It’s a resource we should all acknowledge we’re sharing with each other.”

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