An interview with Doug Coward, Solar and Energy Loan Fund
As part of its series “The Business of Climate Change,” which highlights the climate views of business men and women throughout the state, The Invading Sea spoke with Doug Coward, executive director of the Solar and Energy Loan Fund (SELF).
Here are some highlights from the interview.
Your career in Florida has spanned three decades and you have a background in environmental planning. How has climate change affected you personally and what kind of changes have you seen over the years?
I’ve been in Florida almost four decades and I’ve experienced more hurricanes than I can count. But over the last 20 years, we’ve seen the number of billion-dollar storm events increasing pretty rapidly.
I think I saw the latest numbers were like 291 different billion-dollar events since 1980, at a cost of almost $2 trillion. In 2020 we experienced 22 such disasters. The frequency and intensity of the storms has certainly affected not only me but obviously the entire state and particularly the low- and moderate-income homeowners who we focus on.
I personally have had damage to my home. I’ve had a tree fall on my house. We’ve had flooding impacts. Obviously, temperature increases have also affected quality of life and the cost of energy, and so forth and so on. We’ve seen lots of different effects from climate change, and it’s my passion in life to work on addressing climate change and particularly trying to help low- and moderate-income homeowners.
Can you tell us a little bit about what the solar and energy loan fund does and why you started it?
It really stems back to my 12 years serving as a St. Lucie County commissioner. I was trying to promote the clean energy economy and fighting off a coal plant proposal from the largest utility in the state.
We’re really working in an environment that was punitive toward clean energy and I got tired of beating my head against the wall in Tallahassee and trying to get permission from an energy monopoly to promote the right types of energy technologies in the state, which is really solar and energy efficiency.
I think it was out of pure frustration that I was unable to make any progress at the state level that I finally realized that we needed to try and solve the problem from the local level and really more of a bottom-up, organic solution and we felt that financing was one of the keys to unlocking the clean-energy economy.
The technologies are proven, the return on investments are solid, but if you’re a working-class person and you don’t have savings and you may not have a great credit score, you don’t have access to low-cost capital. It was really with that as a background that we decided to create the first local government green bank in America with a seed grant through the Obama administration.
What are some of the main projects SELF is working on?
The main thing that the solar energy loan fund does is provide existing affordable-housing owners with access to low-cost financing so they can fix up those structures.
The majority of what we’re doing is loans directly to homeowners who are then making these improvements. And that would primarily be single-family homes, but not exclusively. If somebody owns a townhouse or a condo or even a mobile home, we’re able to provide small micro-loans to assist them as well.
But we’ve also not only been scaling our residential programs, but we’ve also been diversifying our lending products. We want to be able to provide options and solutions to more sectors of the community.
For example, in 2019, we just received a grant through JPMorgan Chase to help work on developing a new multifamily-lending product.
We’re working with the South Florida Community Land Trust and the Palm Beach County Land Trust and basically leveraging that $5 million grant into about $70 million of retrofits to existing multifamily structures.
We also have developed new septic-to-sewer conversion loans as a new partnership in Martin County and working with their utility. We have water-quality problems in the state, almost 3 million septic tanks, and there’s a void. We’ve just launched that recently and we’ve already done about $300,000 of septic-to-sewer conversion loans.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the work you’re doing?
Our first item of concern was our outstanding loan portfolio in excess of $5 million, and what impact the pandemic would have on people’s ability to repay those loans.
We were very fortunate that the number of folks that needed relief was quite small—it was less than 3 percent. And so we did provide some flexibility to help people get back on track. The second issue was what was going to be the impact on demand moving forward.
Lesson learned looking back is that we had record-breaking decreases in energy use overall, but in the residential sector, it actually went up. And that’s, of course, because of the stay-at-home orders and the amount of time that people were spending at home was unlike any other year before.
And so one of the other interesting things is that the home-improvement sector was one of the few sectors of the economy that actually has been booming through the pandemic. Home Depot and Lowe’s are making record profits, and we’re a nonprofit lender that’s doing home-improvement lending, so by happenstance our lending activity increased by 84 percent in calendar year 2020 during the pandemic with our entire team working from home.
And then overall we’ve increased our lending activity by about 400 percent in the last three years. We have found that the demand in working-class neighborhoods is essentially at an all-time high. People need help.
Letters have just been sent out to tens of thousands of Floridians from their insurance companies saying if you don’t get your roof fixed, you could either lose your insurance or your premium’s going to go up.
There’s lots of folks that are scrambling to try and figure out: how do I get my roof repaired? But we’re doing our best to try and meet a burgeoning demand within the state and candidly, the United States—we’re beginning to spread our wings and go into other states as well. But there’s a tremendous demand. We currently have a pipeline of over $2 million of projects that we’re working through the approval process.
What advice do you have for homeowners and business owners who are interested in switching to renewable energy or making other sustainable property improvements?
I would advise homeowners and businesses to look at the cheapest fixes first, and that’s generally energy conservation and energy efficiency. Those are really the best bang for the dollar to start.
I always find it entertaining when people come to me and say, “yeah I’ve got high energy bills so I want to build this solar system.”
Well, the first thing to look at is: why do you have high energy bills? It may be that you have an old A/C that’s not running properly. You may not have proper weatherization. You may have jalousie windows and your A/C is literally streaming out your windows.
Solar is not going to solve that. So the first thing you need to do is really focus on the conservation and efficiency side, reduce your overall use of energy, and then size a solar PV system to meet that reduced demand. It’s the most cost-effective way to do it.
That’s one of the things that SELF does. We don’t just provide low-cost financing, … but we’re helping to provide them with energy expertise and guidance through this process.
Kevin Mims, a Florida-based freelance journalist, is the producer of “The Business of Climate Change.” He conducted this interview with Mr. Coward.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state.