Who’s soaking up the sun on Grand Rapids’ West Side? St. James Apartments and Townhomes’ 308 solar panels. Located at 750 First St. NW, the affordable housing project opened December 2018. With the solar panel installation completed last month, they began capturing energy from the sun and transforming it into electricity for the renovated school’s 52 units. The solar array is expected to generate 125,000 kilowatt hours per year and reduce electricity costs by 50 percent.
“It hasn’t been the best weather but, even on a cloudy day, it still generates electricity,” says John Wynbeek, executive director of Genesis Non-Profit Housing Corporation, St. James’ developer. “We’re always looking for opportunities to create more affordable and supportive housing … This has been a good project for us. As we look at future projects, we will be looking at solar.”
Wynbeek shares that as the LEED-certified renovation came to completion, they had resources left over that allowed them to add the solar panels, with the help of a 30 percent solar tax credit.
“We’re expecting the return on investment will be nine or 10 years. We are committed to providing affordable housing for 45 years in that location. It helps us with operating costs and [it] is a good application for empty roof space,” he says. “We wanted to contribute to sustainability in Grand Rapids.”
Since utilities are included in the rent, residents ultimately reap the benefit of cost savings as Genesis is able to keep operating costs down. A 2018 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report states that nearly half of the U.S. residential rooftops that could support solar energy arrays are on the dwellings of low-to-moderate income households. Reducing energy costs for these households could help reduce families’ housing costs, address the need for more affordable housing, and reduce communities’ carbon footprint.
“People are renting older homes that do not have good insulation and windows and such, [and] it increases the rent burden because of higher utility costs,” Wynbeek says. “We’re the first of our peers to do this. As a nonprofit developer, we like to share what works. We are happy to pioneer this and hopefully others will have that same opportunity.”
A co-developer on the project, Dwelling Place handles St. James' property management services. According to Wynbeek, the project has inspired them and other non-profit housing developers, such as LINC up, ICCF, and the Grand Rapids Housing Commission to consider solar power as a means to reduce electricity costs.
“We’re really pleased how the project turned out,” Wynbeek says. “The school was built in 1922. We were able to bring new life to a historic school that had a pretty significant role on the West Side and to do that with a mind toward sustainability for the future. We are really pleased with how it all came together.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development New Editor
Photos courtesy St. James Apartments and Townhomes