Stephen Moilanen is on a mission to make solar power accessible to every American. Currently, 80 percent of households in the United States cannot access solar power. "Renters, low-income-earners, and house owners with shady roofs are effectively locked out of the clean energy market," he says.
Moilanen and Steph Speirs, co-founders of the new non-profit Solstice Initiative, are pioneering the idea of community solar. "It's like a community garden, but for clean energy," Moilanen says. Moilanen envisions households coming together to share a solar power farm in their neighborhood. The solar farms will be built on open land, or atop churches, schools, or shopping centers. Members won't have to cover upfront costs, and the average household will save up to $5,000 over the course of the estimated 20-year program.
Solstice has already deployed two community solar projects in Massachusetts, with each project serving up to 200 households. Moilanen and Speirs plan to add at least two more projects in 2016, and eventually to expand nationwide.
Before founding Solstice, Moilanen worked in the White House's Office of Energy and Climate Change. One of the OECC's primary responsibilities was shepherding a cap-and-trade bill through Congress. Unfortunately, the bill "withered on the vine and perished in the Senate," as Moilanen puts it. Bearing witness to this "tortuously long political process" motivated Moilanen's move to social enterprise. "I have come to believe that taking direct action is the most immediate and consequential means of bringing about the energy future we seek," he says.
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Moilanen and Speirs were inspired to create Solstice when they traveled to India to research solar micro-grids for their capstone project at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. "We realized that the off-grid rural villages we visited were often in a better position to access solar power than households in our own country," Moilanen says.
Moilanen emphasizes that Solstice wouldn't exist without Speirs. "Solstice isn't an individual effort," he says. Speirs shares responsibility for long-term strategy with Moilanen and spearheads Solstice's external outreach and engagement because she's "always bubbly and kind, and much better with people than me," Moilanen says.*
Moilanen grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota. "[My sister and I] enrolled in youth sports year around, were doted on at Christmastime and birthdays, and road-tripped to every corner of the United States," he says. Moilanen comes from a long line of public servants—most notably his grandmother, who ran a Democratic women's club and was "a force to be reckoned with" in local Minnesota politics. "My parents would never say as much, but the only way in which I could disappoint them would be if I failed to translate my good fortune into meaningful work on behalf of the social good," Moilanen says.
Honoring his parents' wishes, Moilanen has worked for the United Nations Environment Program, the Department of Energy, and Obama for America. He's won both the Halcyon and Echoing Green Climate fellowships, which support outstanding entrepreneurs committed to social change.
In 10 years, Moilanen imagines "an America where solar power is considered the default energy source of every household in this country, irrespective of socioeconomic status"—and he expects Solstice Initiative to help realize this vision.
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*Update — March 25, 2016: This article has been updated to reflect that Speirs and Moilanen share long-term strategy work at Solstice.