Interview with Kristal Hansley, Founder & CEO of WeSolar
Did you know community solar capacity in the U.S. has doubled year over year in the past decade? I recently spoke with Kristal, the first Black woman to found a community solar company & who has recently been featured in Fortune, Bloomberg & Vogue due to her leadership on topics like environmental justice. Kristal, through WeSolar, has been revolutionizing community solar by pledging to save customers between 25% & 50% on their electric bills; & removing barriers like long-term contracts & stiff credit checks. Part of WeSolar’s strategy is partnering with reputable firms like Volt Energy to offer community solar to inner city residents in places like Washington D.C. & Maryland.
Catherine: I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me, Kristal Hansley joining me from WeSolar. She’s the founder and CEO, and she’s based in Baltimore, Maryland.
Kristal: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Catherine: So tell us a bit about your career journey and how you got into the clean energy industry.
Kristal: Thank you. I founded WeSolar last June. It was on Juneteen, which served as Freedom Day, as you know, when African-Americans found out almost two and a half years later after the emancipation proclamation, when they found out that they were actually free. And to me, community solar represents that in a sense that it opens up the energy market or the solar market by 80%. So if you didn’t have access to renewable energy or solar energy by traditional methods, by owning a home or putting a system on your roof now, millennials or folks who have that credit have access to some of those solar saving. And to me, obviously being a black woman and a minority in this space, it was just all fitting to launch on that day.
Catherine: That’s great. I love that. What’s it been like to start your own community solar company and what are some lessons that you’ve learned?
Kristal: Yes! Well, the thing is, I wouldn’t say that the transition was as long as it probably would be, I don’t know, for someone totally outside of the community solar sector, I did come from another startup that launch regionally when I kind of was like a branch from them, you know, Maitland sign. And so working with a startup on the ground, being one of the founding members, right when the pilot program became law, that gave me the experience and the confidence, as well as the industry know-how and the political infrastructure that I’ve built along the way. And a lot of it is community focused and pivoting and going on to my own thing, wasn’t as bad of a transition as maybe someone who wasn’t already in the industry.
Catherine: How did you get into clean energy?
Kristal: So I was out and I had this weird like aha moment. My background actually is politics. I’m a political operative, I worked on Capitol Hill. And at the time there was a lot of like the Green New Deal, AOC she was newly elected, I always had an interest in renewable energy. I just wasn’t sure how- with me not having a technical background- how that will actually work. And so I joined a startup and specifically they were looking for a political person and I’m like, wow, that was like a really cool indicator saying, Hey, solar industry really recruits them, you know, that you work on that side of the fence. And it’s like really anyone with skills can cross over. And being able to bridge my policy, as well as my community liaison experience with the community new sector pilot program in Maryland, it was just a great fit for me. And I love what I did. Obviously, I wanted to have my own agency and voice and control over the vision and strategies. And so the only way to really do that is to do your own thing.
Catherine: Yeah, I’m a big advocate of doing your own thing. Cause I don’t like listening to people. So I want to talk about community solar and environmental justice, a tiny bit. What are some examples of community solar projects you’ve worked on and how have they directly addressed environmental and racial justice? What specific impacts have they had?
Kristal: So let’s just rewind, right? When we look at the demographics of just generally the solar space, the environmental EFJ, the Environmental Justice Fund or environmental fund justice, don’t quote me on that, but I’ll circle back onceI get that right acronym. They did a report and it said, believe it or not, the bottom tears of books that make less than $50,000 care more about the environment than those who make 150,000 or more. The only thing is that they don’t really have that same opportunity and resources. And so to me, being able to work on community solar farms in Maryland, bringing the very first community solar farms online on the customer acquisition. Meaning my firm manages markets and sells oil subscriptions to low income families that the census tracks. And I made it my mission to focus in Baltimore city because I felt the need was greater there. They have some of the lowest income zip codes in the country. And so for me, being able to bring such a great resource to communities that did not have that resource available to them prior or overcoming that educational learning curve, that’s the environmental justice component, because the reason why, and let’s say Montgomery County versus Baltimore city, that gap, as far as when people sign up and how much they actually know about it is widen. And you say, okay, well there’s huge, you know, achievement gaps, there’s huge income gaps, there’s huge disparity gaps there. And so I think that community solar creates a nice vertical to bridge some of those gaps because one you’re saving money and you’re educating at the same time and it’s concentrated in the communities that need it the most.
Catherine: Yeah, it’s a really good point. Going back to what you were talking about, low moderate income customers. So you’ve made a pledge that we’re going to save these customers about 25% of their energy bill. You skip the fees, you allow customers to cancel without penalty. I’m interested to see if you also do something similar, like I know Arcadia has been advocating for, which is not doing credit checks. And you’re saying that WeSolar, the average household saves $250 a year and $6,000 over the course of 20 years. Can you talk a bit about how you’re able to provide such substantial benefits?
Kristal: Yeah. So it’s, it’s really interesting. I mean, this may be a little controversial, but I see a little Reaganomics and the community solar model, which I don’t think in this case is bad because it does have like that trickle down economic effects, which can trickle down and help those. And so the way in which this, the financing, as a developer at first, just on my side of the fence, just dealing with customer acquisition, there was an educational gap on my side because I was just the middleman with my previous startup. So we were getting, when the pilot program first came out, there was a hard credit check. It was a 680 for LMI 20 year contracts. And maybe at the time it was 5% and then 15%. And those terms, as far as what I knew to be something that the community would actually sign on to, or actually sellable, they were debt contracts. And so I saw hundreds of thousands of dollars go down the drain because the way in which the contracts are penciled, they meant well. But I knew that there was a communication gap and also it was still too stringent. And for it to really have great impact. And so for me, I was lobbying. And even before I transitioned to WeSolar, I said, look, we cannot take on these contracts or this entire industry is not going to be sustainable. If we don’t figure out how we can make it more, you know, remove the credit score checks, remove the long term contracts, make them month to month, especially for low-income individuals or individuals who obviously cannot afford a hit on their credit, or are already suspicious of giving so much personal information. We didn’t even get into the verification process. And so one MEA in Maryland, the Maryland Energy Department, they already had certain incentives for developers if they already came in at 15% below market rate. And so naturally the market determines the price. And so the average price or the average savings was 25%, in some cases 30%. And then even some jurisdictions, like DC, was 50% for low to moderate income?. So once you matched it with some grants incentives, once you maybe didn’t focus too much on your IRR, you were able to hit those numbers. And to me that means that okay, from an owner and investor perspective, whether you’re at a tax equity partner or a sponsored partner or owner, or you’re just someone that’s just getting paid to be a sight leaser, landlord in a sense, it actually takes care of everyone. So, you know, the landlords make money. The banks make money. The owners make money, as well as the savings trickled down to 25, 30 to 50% for LMI. So those numbers are already embedded in your model. And I think being able to reach those numbers when you have to have like a skilled financial solid background, and that takes years to develop, we just have to find that talent.
Catherine: It’s really incredible though. I just am so thrilled to hear that. And it’s a good model for other States as well.
Kristal: I agree, this has been around, right. I mean, that’s the part that people like: “Oh, Kristal, you’re the first black woman with a community solar company.” I’m like: “yes,” but at the same time that just shows this oppression that has occurred because it’s not the fact that this didn’t exist before. We have to look at the structures and the models that kept in place – why am I the first in 2021? That’s crazy! Community solar has been around for over a decade now. So…
Catherine: Yeah. Well, I think it was Kamala said maybe the first, but I won’t be the last
Kristal: Exactly, Exactly. I mean, she’s, she’s a fellow Howard alum.
Catherine: Last question for you. Just going back to talking about Maryland customers as a whole, so $30 million is that figure. I’m sorry, $300 million is the figure in unpaid gas and electric bills. Black households across the US also pay more for their energy than white households. According to June2020 Working Paper, I think community solar is the best solution for both mitigating climate change, as well as environmental injustice.
Kristal: Yeah. I would say it’s a great solution, but just like how you go to your doctor, they say preventative is best, than actually seeking pharmaceuticals. And so it’s best to catch the issue by preventative measures. And so obviously looking at your consumption, what you eat, what you contribute to your carbon footprint, how much energy you’re using. Those are some of the basic things. Now, obviously when we go into unequitable housing, because obviously environmental justice is just another offshoot from institutionalized racism. And so when we look at fair housing practices and the outdated systems, as well as the predatory targeting from energy companies, that all is a part of this, you know, I say pot of why there’s higher prices and, and low-income families are black communities. And so from my experience, I did do audits and I found some very disturbing ad-ons on the people’s bills. And I’m like, Whoa, you’re paying 50% more than what you supposed to pay. So in that case, obviously community solar was going to offer them anywhere between 15 to 25% off. But in that case, they were able to save 75% off because now we brought them back to the BG and we got rid of this rider that they didn’t even know or really understand. And then also just talk about ways in which they can possibly, um, you know, get replaced the light bulbs. You know, BGME had free led light bulbs, especially if you’re within a census track. And so just having access to the resources, that’s already a privilege in itself and then trusting those resources. That’s another privilege because of previous predatory energy companies promising savings. They’re like, why should I listen to you over what happened to me a year ago? And I’m dealing with this, I’m still dealing with this. And so yes, those are some of the causes that speak to that data that you represented.
But I believe community solar, once it really takes off in a sense that it’s still in its baby phase and we have more testimonies on the other side of the fence where it’s just, okay let’s say you’ve done everything you could, you’ve changed your light bulbs. You put in new windows and you monitor your energy consumption. And like it’s still too rough. It’s still really difficult for me to lower my expenses. Yes, then community solar, just by signing up, just gives you savings. That’s obviously the best option when you don’t have access to traditional rooftop solar.
Catherine: Thank you so much Kristal, it’s been really great speaking to you and I hopefully this will educate some people on the space. And I really appreciate all you’re doing for the environment in your community.
Kristal: Thank you so much.