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South Bend launches program to help local nonprofits install solar panels, improve energy efficiency

Jakob Lazzaro
Unity Gardens installed a solar array to power the organization's new community learning center in summer 2020. Similar projects could be funded through the city's new grant program.

The city of South Bend is launching a new program to help area nonprofits install solar panels and improve energy efficiency.

The Energy Assistance and Solar Savings Initiative, or EASSI, is designed to help local nonprofits, schools, libraries, grocery stores, medical facilities and places of worship install solar panels and make other energy efficiency upgrades.

It’s a partnership between the city’s Office of Sustainability and two community development financial institutions, IFF and CDFI Friendly South Bend, which lend exclusively to nonprofits.

Evelyn Bauman, South Bend’s director of sustainability, said interested organizations can submit a project application and get a free energy assessment from IFF.

The program can also help link organizations who qualify with contractors and assist with project management.

The city will be offering grants of up to 50 percent of the project cost, up to $10,000 per organization, and the two financial institutions will offer low-interest loans to cover the rest.

Bauman says the city has about $300,000 in American Rescue Plan funds available and hopes to service 10 to 15 organizations this year.

And systems installed before July 1 will be eligible for full net metering — which means they will get a credit from the power company for the extra electricity the panels produce — until July 1, 2032.

Those rates are being significantly lowered for all systems installed after July 1 due to a 2017 change in state law.

Sara Stewart is the executive director of Unity Gardens on the city’s west side. The nonprofit is in the final stages of opening its new community learning center.

Stewart says that originally, their electric bill was $160 a month. And the space wasn’t even open yet.

“For a nonprofit, that takes away from what we’re able to do — programming, free seeds, free gardening classes,” Stewart said.

But Unity Gardens installed a solar array to power the building in summer 2020, and its bill dropped to $20 a month.

“As we were doing more and more work — getting heat, being in here more, continuing to paint, et cetera — imagine my surprise when we’re still at $20 a month,” she said.

The total cost was about $15,000.

That was before the grant program was available, but Stewart said the nonprofit’s lower electricity bills really illustrate the potential benefits.

Unity Gardens has had a smaller solar array on site since 2012. It was donated by Inovateus Solar and provides electricity for the nonprofit’s growing hoods.

Program eligibility information and application instructions are available online. The city is also hosting a webinar about the program Monday, January 24 at 10 a.m. It can be accessed online here.

Contact Jakob at or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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