The Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council, or SOPEC, has been awarded a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, to boost their Solar Access Pathways program in Athens. 

On April 26, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown announced in a news release that SOPEC, an electricity aggregator, would be receiving the grant through the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, to provide free solar assessments to local businesses and agricultural producers.

Mathew Roberts, director of marketing for SOPEC, said the council applied for the funds through the Renewable Energy Development Assistance grant program, which falls under REAP. He also said SOPEC has received grants twice before, but this is the first time the funds will be used over a one-year period. 

Along with being able to provide businesses with free solar assessments, Roberts said one of SOPEC’s main objectives is to educate the clients it works with. 

“In a lot of ways, this is an education piece, because there's so much misinformation and miscalculation, I would say, of what solar is and what it can do for a business, that we're not just kind of showing up and doing the typical solar assessment, but we're also really educating the applicants about how solar works,” Roberts said. “More than anything, it really just helps raise the awareness of solar technology in the region.” 

The grant funds free solar assessments for 100 small businesses or agricultural producers in total, Roberts said. Once a business or agricultural producer applies for and is granted a solar assessment, SOPEC works with independent contractors to provide the assessments. From there, SOPEC gives the business or agricultural producer a report and provides a list of solar installment companies in Ohio that are available. 

Roberts also said SOPEC encourages those who want to invest in solar to work with Rural Action, a local nonprofit organization that offers REAP grant writing services to afford the technology.

Rural Action works with businesses and agricultural producers to “collect application materials, consult with the installer and the USDA on technical questions, and submit (the) application on time,” according to Rural Action’s website

Howard Peller, owner of Living Willow Farm and one of the applicants who worked with SOPEC to begin the process of installing solar technology at his business, said he has long been interested in solar energy but wasn’t immediately sure it was right for him. 

“I've been interested for years…just whether I could afford it was (the issue). I looked into it once and it seemed out of reach,” Peller said. “We applied for the grant. It was really nice, the installer, and the relationship with Rural Action was also very positive. It was a really easy, coordinated effort to apply for the REAP grant and make the solar project more affordable.”

Peller received the solar assessment through SOPEC last year and said his business recently started making power. Moving forward, he said his solar panels will offset the costs of power and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Roberts said Peller’s case was an ideal scenario for SOPEC’s program and that he is proud of how the council is helping small businesses and agricultural producers take advantage of solar energy. 

“The program is excellent for education purposes…there's a lot of ease of mind that (the business has) made the right decision and it was a really good investment for the health of the business as a whole,” Roberts said. 

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