Serenity Soular Spreads Solar Power to North Philadelphia

Last week marked the kickoff of the fourth year of the Serenity Soular Project, a collaborative effort between Swarthmore students and the Serenity House in North Philadelphia.

North Philly is one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Philadelphia, having a high unemployment and childhood poverty rate. The Serenity House’s mission is to act as a safe space in the community and provide support groups, Bible study, stress management, and many other services. Now, with the help of Swarthmore students, the house has also become the neighborhood center for green technology and education.

The original concept was created several years ago by Swarthmore students with the intention of involving local residents in the creation of a community garden and garage roof garden at the Serenity House in the city. Originally called Sustainable Serenity, this initial collaboration later became the basis for its current work with solar and green technology. However, a garden was found to be unsustainable for the garage roof. Instead, Sustainable Serenity diverted its interest to renewable and sustainable energy. Laura Rigell ‘16, one of the current leaders of the project, said, “the team accepted an offer by Professor Carr Everbach of the Swarthmore engineering department to donate a solar panel for the roof.  Professor Everbach led a series of workshops on solar power over the summer of 2014, which culminated in a public event to install the panel on the garage; it now powers lights in the backyard.”

The solar panel project proved to be a success, and since then the Sustainable Serenity project has broadened its scope and has gradually given way to today’s Soular group. “Residents expressed excitement to learn more about the industry and the potential that solar could bring jobs to the neighborhood,” Rigell continued. “In December 2014, we convened the ‘Sustainable Serenity’ team, including Swarthmore students and faculty, and North Philadelphia residents and began pursuing Serenity Soular.”

The project has been supported by a Pericles grant from Swarthmore’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. Rigell cited many individual successes the project has achieved, including the Solar Panel Pilot Project, “a photovoltaic solar panel, energy inverter, and battery installed on the garage roof, which now power outdoor LED lights in the Community Garden,” as well as winning a city-wide sustainability contest “which qualifies each of the 18 households to receive free energy efficiency retrofits including full energy audits, insulation, window replacement and sealing, and ceiling repair.”

This year, the primary mission of the project is to work with local residents to completely solarize the roof of the Serenity House and make the house 100% sustainable. In order to get closer to this goal, the Serenity Soular project has received help from RE-volv, a group based in San Francisco dedicated to providing people with green technology. Rigell explained, “In May 2015, the Sustainable Serenity team was selected as one of RE-volv’s five Solar Ambassador teams to take part in a one-year fellowship. Throughout the duration of the fellowship, teams will work with RE-volv to bring their proposed solar projects to completion by May 2016 using RE-volv’s innovative financing model, which combines crowdfunding with a revolving fund.”

In addition to the fellowship, Rigell also envisions an apprenticeship program to train local residents in green jobs and get them involved in the growing solar industry. In order to fund this, the Serenity Soular project launched a crowdfunding campaign this semester with the hopes of raising $10,000 to fund the program. The campaign is already almost a quarter of the way to its goal, and the project is looking ahead. “In the long run, we aim to start up a solar installation enterprise in North Philadelphia that would hire local residents and operate as a worker-owned cooperative,” Rigell says.

Also important to the project is its role in the community and the people it works with. “By listening to the community’s voices and desires, the collaboration has together organized public events, to work in the garden, spark community conversation, and celebrate Mother’s Day,” Rigell said.

As part of the RE-volv grant, the Serenity House has also pledged its commitment to environmental education, both about the technology and to raise awareness for environmental justice. Rigell explained, “As Solar Ambassadors we will continue to host events in the community about how solar works and the potential contribution green energy could offer to North Philadelphia.” In fact, according to the Serenity crowdfunding page, $2,500 out of the $10,000 that Serenity Soular hopes to raise will be devoted to “supplies for public events to build public visibility” and “solar-installation training events for local residents.”

However, as the project grows and continues to be successful it will try not to lose sight of its original founding idea, which was the importance of collaboration with the residents of North Philadelphia. Rigell said, “Together, the ‘Sustainable Serenity’ team has developed a working perspective rooted in the idea of ‘just sustainability:’ the notion that a truly sustainable society is one in which all peoples are treated with dignity and have access to a healthy environment and secure livelihood. This community-college collaboration has remained committed to the values of reciprocity and exchange, and this has meant ‘crossing borders’ between North Philadelphia neighborhoods and the Swarthmore College campus.”

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