When the nonprofit Food Bank of Northern Nevada scraped together enough donations to expand to a brand-new 61,000-square-foot facility in McCarran, Nev., in 2008, organizers hoped to power the place with the state’s omnipotent rays.
It was a pipe dream, though. The Food Bank, a distribution and outreach center, didn’t have enough funding left over to pay for a solar project, even one that would eventually pay for itself, as such installations can over time. And even if they could get a rebate from the state utility to help pay for the project, Nevada law at the time capped those incentives to solar installations smaller than 30 kilowatts — not nearly enough to make sense for a facility as large as the food bank. That’s when Black Rock Solar stepped in. The Reno-based nonprofit, spawned at the Burning Man arts festival in 2007, provides low-cost energy to underserved communities. Black Rock put relentless pressure on the state’s Public Utility Commission to remove the cap, according to Food Bank’s president and CEO, Cherie Jamason. Their efforts paid off, and when the agency flipped on the lights a few months later, the juice came from a 150-watt solar array on the roof, installed by the very group that had started out as a bunch of “burners.”
…That small cadre of volunteers — with backgrounds in solar energy and construction —discovered that they could position themselves as the ideal middlemen between NV Energy, the state-run utility handing out incentives for solar installations, and Nevada groups that didn’t know money existed or how to take advantage of it.
Now, seven years later, Black Rock Solar has 28 employees and has built 72 projects worth roughly $20 million, pushing more than 4 megawatts onto the grid, enough to power 4,000 homes. About a third of the projects have gone to Indian tribes, says Patrick McCully, Price’s successor and Black Rock’s executive director. The rest went to schools, community colleges, churches, food banks, homeless shelters and even some government buildings such as wastewater treatment plants. Black Rock Solar — funded entirely by utility rebates, grants and donations — is now the nation’s second-largest nonprofit installer of solar arrays.
It’s great to see Black Rock Solar out there doing so much good in the world. We hope the new non-profit Burning Man Project can learn from their example, and leave a lasting trace in the community.