At the 2019 Southwest Virginia Counties Solsmart Kickoff, participants discussed the goals of the SolSmart program, such as creating favorable county ordinances that benefit solar energy development
February 7, 2019 | VISTA member Austin Counts, serving at Appalachian Voices in Southwest Virginia, has been focusing his service on helping area residents access solar energy, reduce electricity bills, and lessen their reliance on fossil fuels. As a member of the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia (SWSV), Austin helped develop the Southwest Virginia Solar Initiative, which provides information to participating residents to determine if their homes are well-suited to utilize solar energy, educates residents on how to access federal incentives for financing a solar system, and how to identify solar energy developers. As part of this program, Austin created and is currently overseeing the E-learning residential solar programs. In order to create sustainability for the future, he is creating video content on the program’s work to help secure funding. Additionally, he is helping develop the Solar Workgroup’s commercial-scale solar Request for Proposals (RFP) process. These items are a part of the application process for the “Your Community Final Prize Competition”, a monetary rewards program, that will help implement the Roadmap for Solar Development in Southwest Virginia
Aside from his outreach activities, Austin is helping develop the Solar Workgroup’s SolSmart program. This program works to develop city ordinances to favor the development of solar systems. Austin has worked with several organizations to help them receive bids for solar development, helping drive down the cost of solar panels and installation. With saved money and resources, the buildings approved for solar systems will not only produce solar energy but will also serve as educational resources for K-12 students in Southwest Virginia. Terry Vincil, the Director and the Wetlands Estonoa Learning Center in St. Paul, VA says “We are interested in the solar ambassador program too, where 10th or 11th grade students will go be trained, and then those kids will go to elementary schools and teach them about solar and bring them here.” Estonoa Learning Center, utilized by multiple schools throughout the region, helps bring environmental education and activities to Southwest Virginia youth. Through the SolSmart program, Estonoa Learning Center was able to receive funding that made this system possible.
Austin, alongside other Stewards VISTA Taysha DeVaughan, will attend the Clinch River Valley Initiative 2019 Youth Summit, an opportunity for local high school students to learn about the watersheds as well as other community service projects aimed at improving them, to discuss being a VISTA and solar energy in Southwest Virginia.