by Sally James
When two men met long ago as part of a city committee, they didn’t know that years later it would lead to a solar installation.
Dennis Comer, who lives near Genesee Park, works as the director of the nonprofit Central Area Collaborative. His days are spent trying to promote investments and development that will benefit the Central District and preserve its cultural legacy.
Edwin Wanji is the owner of Sphere Solar Energy, a five-year-old company that installs solar panels on roofs in Washington as well as around the world. Wanji is an immigrant from Kenya who came to the United States with two $20 bills in his pocket as a college student almost 15 years ago.
They both serve on the city of Seattle’s Environmental Justice Committee.
One day, after a committee meeting, Comer asked a few questions of Wanji, and it became clear he was interested in solar for his own home. Wanji was happy to run the numbers, hoping to demonstrate that solar would make sense and that the investment could be financed so that Comer could borrow the roughly $32,000 that would cover the panels on the roof.
“Seattle is getting hotter,” Comer told the Emerald on a recent 85-degree day. Comer lives with his wife and child and his in-laws in a brick house not far from Lake Washington. He wants to add air conditioning to his home, but the added energy use would be expensive without solar.
Comer had been interested for several years. He already owns an electric car and knows a bit about solar. But his interaction with Wanji sparked a personal decision that it was time to put solar on his roof.
“I’ve always been that guy who is first to try a gadget,” he explained. “Sun is free energy.”
The panels installed at Comer’s house will generate more than the calculated peak energy use that the Comer family has had in that house. In fact, Comer hopes to be able to charge his electric car with his solar. As of early September, Comer was delighted to see the panels working as promised.
The current pandemic had nothing to do with Comer finally making his investment, he said. He also denies being motivated to offer his home as a symbol to others in the community. But Wanji believes the panels may attract others in the neighborhood to get curious and make their own calculations.
Both men are aware that the environmental movement gets criticism for being too white.
While Comer didn’t put solar on his roof to benefit anyone besides his own family, Wanji sees the panels as a community good.
“When you have someone in the community, like Dennis, who is already a very active, vocal community member and they are excited about owning a solar system, I think that’s a win right there. Because this word will keep getting out to the community and hopefully more people will reach out and ask: Hey, how about my home over here?” Wanji said.
Many years ago, when Wanji was visiting rural parts of Kenya, he saw the lack of lighting as a huge problem. Besides his solar business, he also leads a nonprofit that installs solar panels for charity causes in Kenya and in the U.S.
He is hoping to find ways to put 10 or more homeowners or businesses together in a bulk-buying arrangement that will reduce the cost of solar panels for each individual.
“We are hoping to be able to pull in some grant money and continue making this resource more affordable for families with lower incomes,” Wanji said.
He has also worked as a volunteer to give teens exposure to solar in hopes of inspiring them to someday heat their own homes this way and seek jobs in green energy.
“We are riding the storm right now [of the pandemic], Wanji said. “But you know, energy resilience is more important than ever, and there’s a bright future.”
Sally James is a Seattle-based science reporter.