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Transitioning Appalachia from coal to solar: the story of Solar Holler

Dollars deposited at Amalgamated are directly lent out to impact businesses that take corporate social responsibility seriously. Amalgamated’s impact lending strategy is steeped in our values to build a more just and sustainable world. The clients we serve are values-aligned organizations that we’re proud to do business with and support their efforts to make the world a better place.

Today, we’d like to share the story of Solar Holler, one of our solar clients focused on bringing clean energy to Appalachia. We are proud of the support we are providing through our treasury management and lending services to Solar Holler.

Appalachia is a region in the United States that stretches from Canada to Alabama. The region is well-known for its beauty and natural resources and became an important center of the US coal mining industry, along with large-scale logging. Years of resource extraction were economically critical to the region but didn’t translate to prosperity for its people, as it remains one of the poorest regions in the U.S.1

Solar Holler was founded with the mission to make clean energy affordable, to rebuild the Appalachian economy, and to spread the benefits of clean energy to those who need it most. By providing innovative financing solutions for solar projects, as well as solar training programs and apprenticeships, Solar Holler is paving the way for economic justice for both the people of Appalachia and the environment.

“We’re always exploring different financing options that will allow more central Appalachians to easily and affordably make the switch to solar,” explains Jessica Edgerly Walsh, Director of Marketing from Solar Holler. “We’ve strengthened our financing offerings for places of worship to help more churches and synagogues save on their power bills with solar. We continue to add more energy storage options. Batteries, for backup when the grid is down, continue to gain popularity and come down in price, so we’re selling more of those lately.”

Solar Holler is passionate about uplifting and boosting the communities across the region, currently serving in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern Ohio, while further expansion across the region is underway, as they approach western Maryland and the rural mountainous counties of Appalachia. In response, community support has been instrumental to their success. The first solar projects Solar Holler successfully carried out in West Virginia—focused on churches and nonprofits—relied on creative crowd-funding strategies. Financing these early solar projects was entirely dependent on community support and engagement, so their core focus has been on motivating, educating, and inspiring the community.

“Generally, in central Appalachia, solar is very unusual,” said Jessica. “So folks’ reception of the idea is really all over the place. Our marketing and sales program is very focused on consumer education. We want people to understand why it’s important to make the switch, what the benefits are and how it can help the community.”

In addition to their training and educational programs, Solar Holler reinforces their dedication to the community by seeking out and hiring local talent, as well as partnering with local suppliers. Despite the challenges of finding the right talent in rural states, Solar Holler recruits nationally for those looking to move back to their homes in Appalachia.

“Recently, we drew from Texas and Vermont folks who went away and are now back home,” said Jessica. “As a Benefit Corporation, we aim to weave our mission into every aspect of our business. For example, we draw our solar panels from a manufacturing facility in north Georgia, where nearly 1,000 fellow Appalachians work to create them. We could buy from China, but we chose to support local jobs and to deliver quality equipment."

Solar Holler has also recently joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and fully unionized their installation crew. IBEW is one of the oldest and longest running labor unions with a long history of representing electrical workers. Fully unionizing their installation team means that Solar Holler’s employees enjoy full union representation and benefits, in addition to IBEW’s best in-class training resources. Becoming a union shop aligns with their mission to support Appalachian industry and Appalachian workers.

The choice to work with Amalgamated Bank was similarly driven, as they sought out values and mission-aligned financial partners.

“Mission alignment was important,” said Jessica, “but because solar is so small in central Appalachia, local banks don’t really understand our business. Working with Amalgamated has been great because solar is what you all know. Our line of credit with Amalgamated is scaled properly to our business and recognizes the queue of projects contracted and awaiting installation. Up until now, we’d been working with smaller lines of credit, and we were making it work. But now, with a bit more credit we can make smarter decisions and negotiate better bulk purchase deals.”

At the close of 2020, Solar Holler had installed over 4MW of solar, about ⅓ of the 12MW of solar generation in West Virginia, and they are on track to install another 4MW in 2021. They have also trained over 100 apprentices in solar (108 and counting!).

“Our role in bringing solar to central Appalachia is significant,” said Jessica. “We’re installing solar in the heart of coal country! Nearly every electron we produce with solar offsets one produced by coal.”

Recently, Solar Holler has been focused on building up residential businesses. As a part of that, they joined with a national nonprofit advocacy group, Solar United Neighbors, to be the installation partner for two solar co-ops in Morgantown and Southeastern West Virginia. And earlier this spring, a neighborhood association in Huntington selected Solar Holler to help their homeowners go solar with a group discount. The work continues to grow and expand across the region, and we look forward to witnessing Solar Holler make the next steps.

Core to Amalgamated’s legacy has been our work to translate deposits into impact loans. Our partnership with Solar Holler represents a proud moment in our 100-year-old history of supporting social change. Banking with Amalgamated means choosing a greener, cleaner, healthier future—it means investing in companies that are making lasting social impact and changing their communities to become more sustainable and better prepared for the future. Amalgamated is proud to have been a part of this journey for Solar Holler, and we look forward to our continued relationship.