In 2013, the Brookings Institution, a leading liberal think tank, published The Metropolitan Revolution, which argues that, in light of the Great Recession and ensuing federal cutbacks, cities and metropolitan areas are leading the nation in creating economic prosperity through innovation and collaboration. No one understands this better than Memphis Bioworks, founded in 2001 to foster workforce development in Memphis’s bioscience sector. Together with the City of Memphis, the organization has been working to incorporate job creation and environmental improvement in one of the largest municipal solar panel installations in the nation, paving the way for a sustainable future for Memphis one rooftop at a time.
The Memphis Civic Solar Project will install 50 kilowatts of solar energy on top of thirty municipal buildings in Memphis, the equivalent of about 200 solar panels per building. Memphis Civic Solar is part of larger mission to reduce energy costs, provide new revenues to the city, and reduce its impact on the environment. Specifically, this project will bring new revenues to the city without any capital outlay and offset over 2,000,000 lbs carbon dioxide emissions each year.
While Memphis isn’t the first city to take advantage of solar energy, the project is unique for several reasons. Because of their financial feasibility, many cities across the country use brownfields as locations for solar energy panels, sites defined by the EPA as previously developed urban areas whose reuse may be complicated by pollutants or contaminants. Under the leadership of Memphis Bioworks, Memphis is able to aggregate its thirty different project sites into one financial transaction, creating the size and scope necessary to entice private investment to get involved. This private third party will own and operate the systems, while the City collects rent by leasing its rooftops for twenty years.
“We’re trying to prove that projects can develop the economy while retaining and leveraging environmental benefits,” Kirk Williamson, sustainability projects manager at Memphis Bioworks explained. Kirk was hired by the organization in 2011 to manage their first largescale solar installation on top of the office’s parking garage. “By us doing this project, we can show to the private sector that this is something we can take on as Memphians in private businesses and in our residential homes that can be a source of progress for our city.”
But there is more to progress than what is currently happening on the ground.
The incredible thing about the impact of Memphis Civic Solar is that it goes beyond its tangible and quantitative benefits. Bryan Marinez, project manager LightWave Solar, the company contracted to perform the solar panel installations, described the importance of education in the project’s design. About half of the project sites are community centers and libraries located in neighborhoods all over Memphis. In many cases, installing solar panels will expose individuals using those spaces to technologies they have never seen before. “Everyone is interested,” Bryan said. His initial site assessments out in the field have only been greeted with curious people who are eager to learn about the benefits solar energy can bring to their communities.
Kirk further emphasized that this educational piece is where the project workers can connect with the local community to change everyone’s thinking on what’s possible. “Who knows? It might be what that one kid who sees that installation in that neighborhood needs to say ‘I want to be an engineer and I want to go work in an industry that is treating the environment better, and I want to make that my life’s work. At the end of the day, we as a country need to change our perspective and our understanding of what our impact is on the environment and this project really offers that piece.” By offering jobs to Memphians in the sustainability sector, and by exposing younger generations to better energy alternatives, the Memphis Civic Solar Project is creating a strong foundation for a sustainable future. They can continue their important work with your support.
The Memphis Civic Solar Project has reached a number of important milestones throughout its ioby campaign. Because of this success, the campaign has been extended to June 3rd, when the project is set to reach its final milestone, City Council approval for the project. Donations and support will be important over the next two months to reach the team’s final goal for project approval.