Posted August 8, 2016
  • Apprentices Ky and Robert learning about solar installation.

  • Community Design Charrette

  • Community Design Charrette

  • Solar Panel Installation

Serenity Soular Installation: From funding to design

The PennPraxis Serenity Soular team (Laura Rigell MCP ’17, Cari Krol MCP ’17, Nikita Jathan MArch ’18, Margaret Gregg MArch ‘18) embarked upon the next phase of its collaboration with Serenity House and Swarthmore College in June 2016.  They previously completed a crowdfunding campaign to purchase and install photovoltaic panels on the roof of Serenity House, an outreach ministry of Arch Street United Methodist Church, located in North Philadelphia. 

The students are proposing to design and build a solar pavilion in The People's Garden—the community garden adjacent to Serenity House—to encourage community and educational events centered on environmental (specifically solar) topics.  The pavilion would serve the dual purpose of lighting The People's Garden at night to improve safety, and providing shade during the day.  

Community Design Charrette at Serenity House

The Serenity Soular team continues to work with community members to design the solar pavilion, such that it addresses specific needs within the community.  To this end, they are hosting several open design charrettes with active North Philadelphia community members.  

The first event was held on June 25th.  The team led community members in a series of exercises to facilitate discussion about concerns and hopes about the future of Garden.  This led to more specific dialogue about what a physical intervention, such as the solar pavilion, would accomplish.  Site plans of the garden were distributed to everyone and participants were invited to sketch out their ideas to share with the group.

Following the design charrettes, Serenity House opened its backyard to the neighborhood for a “solar dance party.” Community members of all ages enjoyed an array of home cooked barbeque and water ice from local entrepreneur Cortez Roberts, local water ice stand, with music provided by DJ Dilemma. The area was lit up by LED lights powered by the solar panel installed in 2014 by Serenity Soular. 

Solar Installation on Serenity House

In late July, Solar States and the Serenity Soular apprentices installed solar on the roof of Serenity House.  This was the culmination of a year of fundraising, coordinating, and healing, and enabled Serenity House to be powered by solar panels and two young people being equipped to begin careers in the green economy.

The project was made possible by collaborations across different sectors and organizations.  Residents of North Philadelphia allied with RE-volv, Solar States, Arch Street United Methodist Church, PennPraxis, students and faculty from Swarthmore College and PennDesign, and hundreds of individual donors, building relationships across difference and funneling resources toward equitable and sustainable development in the neighborhood. 

One year ago, the Serenity Soular team was selected as one of the RE-volv Solar Ambassador teams for the 2015-2016 academic year.  RE-volv is an organization based in San Francisco that finances solar installations for non-profits. RE-volv supported Serenity Soular to crowdfund the cost of installing solar on Serenity House: $11,000.  The PennPraxis team supported these fundraising efforts.  Arch Street United Methodist Church, as the owner of the Serenity House building, will pay RE-volv for the installation over a 20-year lease. Monthly lease payments will be 15% less than Serenity House’s past electricity bill, resulting in immediate savings. RE-volv will reinvest these lease payments into future solar projects. 

Serenity Soular also fundraised to support an apprenticeship program to accompany the installation. Serenity Soular chose to partner with Solar States, a North Philadelphia-based installation company with an educational mission, to complete the project.  In the spring of 2016, Serenity Soular selected two young people to join an apprenticeship program in the lead-up to the installation. Ky Saunders, age 22, and Robert Crawford, age 24, were chosen from a pool of applicants to receive stipends for attending solar training classes twice a week from April to June.  Ky and Robert joined Youth Build Charter School students in a class organized by Solar States founder Micah Gold-Markel.  Solar States agreed to allow Ky and Robert to shadow their staff during the installation on Serenity House.  Eventually, Solar States offered Ky a full-time job among their installers.  Ky accepted the position and participated in the install on the roof of Serenity House as a paid member of the Solar States staff.

Over time, Serenity Soular aims to launch a worker-owned cooperative solar installation business in the community, to create even more employment opportunities for people like Ky.  Over the next year, Serenity Soular is going to continue partnering with RE-volv as a Solar Ambassador team.  This time, Serenity Soular will fundraise to solarize Morris Chapel Baptist Church, two doors down from Serenity House.  Serenity Soular will continue expanding access to solar power and green jobs in North Philadelphia, to ensure that low-income communities can reap the benefits of sustainability.

The Team hosted a ribbon cutting and community conversation event on Saturday, July 30th at Morris Chapel Baptist Church at 2701 N. 12th Street.  Members of Serenity Soular shared about the project and were able to flip the switch on the new photovoltaic system!

Serenity Soular is a diverse collaboration of North Philadelphia residents and Philadelphia-area students and professors working to advance just sustainability. The Serenity Soular project grew from a seed that was planted in fall 2012, when Swarthmore College Environmental Studies professor Giovanna Di Chiro connected with O, the caregiver at Serenity House in North Philadelphia.   Serenity House is a community outreach center operated by Arch Street United Methodist Church and located at 1209 W. Lehigh Avenue.