When Norm Levy decides to learn about a new topic, he does his research. As a member of the Norwich Energy Committee and an emerging Upper Valley philanthropist, Norm is a passionate advocate for extending access to lower cost solar electricity for low/moderate income Vermonters and Upper Valley nonprofits. A retired laboratory physician who has invested wisely over the course of his career, Norm set about wanting to ‘have fun and do good’, landing on a non-traditional investment model called “community impact investing,” specifically focused on installing solar arrays.
Says Norm, “I believe lower income Vermonters care as passionately about climate change as their more affluent neighbors, but feel they have to focus their finances on the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and childcare. I am fortunate that in retirement I have the means to help others, so I decided I was going to be the lone ranger in a wool cap and find a way to extend energy efficiency to low- and middle-income families in my own community of Norwich.”
What began as an LED bulb gifting program, distributing over 3,000 bulbs to Upper Valley families, has evolved into something much larger, and Norm has become conversant in the many aspects of solar power and its financing, including net metering, how solar arrays work, and tax credits for investors who support clean energy infrastructure.
Norm’s chosen investment approach resulted in a novel partnership with Norwich Solar Technologies, which has completed two community solar arrays with Norm’s new company, Norm & Sun LLC. The first project was a standalone array that provided electricity for 25% less than commercial rates to 14 families living at Starlake Lane built by Twin Pines Housing. The project provides solar powered electricity to the non-profit COVER Home Repair in White River Junction as well.
The second project is located on Turnpike Road, on land owned by Jay Mead and Edie Farwell and uses a different model – a larger “mixed” community array. Some solar panels are owned by 25 individual homeowners, while 110 panels are owned by Norm & Sun, LLC, providing electricity for the Good Neighbor Health Clinic in White River Junction. Edie says, “We were looking to see how we could further contribute to clean energy in Norwich. We’re so pleased that we could use an acre of land for a solar installation. It feels like a win-win-win all around. Norwich Solar Technologies has been an excellent partner to work with on this.”
Norm’s research has shown that socially responsible investing is more than a $17 trillion industry in the United States. “People want to put their money towards good works as well as investing in their future. Unfortunately, most of the investments go into large multinational corporations, and it is very difficult to direct investments into one’s local community. If more investors knew about these opportunities, it would give them a chance to make a positive difference in their own communities,” says Norm.
Community solar financed by private investors is a relatively new approach on the Vermont solar scene and more solar developers are beginning to adopt the model. Because the upfront costs of a solar project for an individual homeowner can be prohibitive even with government incentives, community impact investing allows homeowners and apartment dwellers to save money on electric bills and use clean solar power without the substantial capital outlay.
Norm is an advocate of public-private partnerships to achieve his philanthropic aims. “Partnership with a private community investor is the key,” says Norm. Since the 1990s, tax laws have included incentives in the form of tax credits to encourage private investment in renewable energy, offsetting one’s federal income taxes. Low- and moderate-income residents pay lower taxes, and hence can access fewer credits. Norm explains, “So I figured that once I understood how this worked, I could ‘right size’ a solar project to an investment size I felt comfortable with, take advantage of the tax credits, and share the benefits with non-profits and lower income residents in the form of lower cost renewable energy.”
At the recent grand opening of the Turnpike Road project, Kevin Davis, VP of Sales for Norwich Solar Technologies shared some insights on why the Solar Santa model is a good one. “From an economic point of view, so much of the cost we pay for electricity goes to sources from out of the state, but community solar projects generate electricity locally. It keeps our dollars circulating in the local economy and creates renewable energy here in Vermont, making energy independence more feasible.”
Residential customers receive net metering credits to offset their utility bills, and Norm plans to transfer his credits to benefit the Good Neighbor Health Clinic. Landowners Jay Mead and Edie Farwell leased the land to Norwich Solar Technologies to construct the array. Says Jay, “We’re concerned about climate change, and we had this piece of land that had a good solar aspect. It does change the landscape, and I think it’s important that we see what the cost of our electrical consumption is.”
For Norm, the big goal is to inspire additional public-private collaborations to extend renewable energy and utility cost savings to a larger number of communities and non-profits for decades to come. “If you are a beneficiary of the economy, you too can share your good fortune with non-profits and low-income homeowners.”
Norm is the best kind of investor/philanthropist – a patient one. While the original return on his investment at Starlake Lane was projected at five years, he chose to provide a higher reduction in utility bills for the residents and COVER Home Repair, stretching his return to seven years, but he is fine with that – especially if it supports his mission to have fun and do good.
To learn more about how Norm supports clean energy for low- and middle-income families, email firstname.lastname@example.org.