This year, the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) National Solar Tour is featuring more than 60 locations nationwide, including homes and businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Because of COVID-19, the national and all local tours will be virtual. We caught up with Rosa Orenstein, J.D., Executive Director of the North Texas Renewable Energy Group (NTREG) to learn more about what NTREG has planned for its 2020 Tour on October 3. Here’s that conversation.
Q: Despite the pandemic’s effects on life as we knew it, including annual Solar Tours, let’s talk about NTREG’s 2020 Solar Tour. How long has NTREG been doing this tour?
A: In 2009, NTREG member Paul Westbrook listed six homes for the DFW Metroplex Tour on his personal website. By 2015, the list (now on the DFW Solar Tour website) had grown to more than 50 homes and commercial sites, making it the second-largest Solar Tour in the U.S.!
Q: That’s some true braggin’ rights! What about this year’s tour with COVID-19? What did you do to switch gears from an in-person to a virtual tour?
A: Not surprising, we had to completely change our thinking and processes to go virtual for 2020. For example, instead of showcasing more than 50 sites, we’re only showcasing 10 sites. We’re also having two Solar 101 video presentations narrated by the hosts. Volunteers from Dallas College/Northlake Campus, the Tour’s Terawatt sponsor, will edit the videos so they’re tight and crisp. On October 3, Solar Tour Day, NTREG will run those videos continuously on its YouTube channel. Also, each of the 10 sites will hold public Q&A sessions at specified times throughout the day so the public may still participate.
On the plus side, we saved a little on the up-front costs; we won’t need as many t-shirts or signs or advertising outside online advertising. Our DFW Solar Tour website, currently being updated, will be up and running by early September. Challenges for sure, but the 2020 Tour is definitely coming along nicely. We’re all excited about this year’s Tour.
Q: What criteria does NTREG use to accept homes and businesses for the tour?
A: Generally, participants who want to showcase their homes or businesses sign up through the DFW Solar Tour Website. The Solar Tour Committee reviews each of those sites and determines which ones will serve both the educational mission of NTREG and the sharing of the enthusiasm and challenges which the homeowner has encountered in the installation and performance of their system. Over the years, we’ve had very good applicants that fulfill the criteria to be accepted. Rarely has NTREG turned away a proposed site.
Q: Besides this year’s 180 to go virtual, what other things have been some of your biggest challenges?
A: Throughout the years, the biggest challenge has always been raising the funds to cover all costs and finding enough volunteers to staff all sites. This was especially difficult in 2018 when we had 52 sites! Since we like to have about three volunteers for each site, that means increased costs for t-shirts, signs, marketing, advertising and, of course, volunteers. It was a logistical challenge, but our volunteers and Solar Tour Committee weren’t deterred. As if those inherent challenges weren’t formidable enough, throw in a tornado on the day of the Tour and you can see why 2018 will go down as one of, if not the most difficult years for our Solar Tour.
The other big challenge has been finding underserved and underrepresented communities to participate. We’ve undertaken aggressive efforts to increase participation from vulnerable communities and people of color, but clearly we’ve not made anywhere near the progress we would like to see and are aiming for. We still have work to do.
Q: That said, talk about some of your successes.
A: That’s easy. Our biggest success has been the participation of so many homes and businesses around the DFW Metroplex. We’ve had sites almost as far south as Hillsboro, as far north as McKinney and as far west as Weatherford. More recently, we have begun to see some results from our outreach efforts to vulnerable communities and people of color. As I mentioned, we’re still not where we want to be but we continue to increase our efforts.
Join NTREG for its 12th annual Solar Homes Tour October 3.