CHERP builds first nonprofit solar panel factory

Only by thinking big and setting one’s sights high can great things be accomplished. Just ask Claremont’s Devon Hartman.


On Tuesday he took a moment, after a decade of striving, to enjoy the christening of the very first nonprofit solar panel assembly factory in the world, right here in Pomona.


“It’s very exciting for all of us. It’s very gratifying,” said Mr. Hartman, founder and executive director of Claremont based nonprofit Community Home Energy Retrofit Project (CHERP), and its new offshoot, CHERP Solar Works. “We’re feeling extremely grateful to all of our supporters.”

The factory, at 1460 E. Holt Ave., was 10 years in the making and involved mountains of research, development and untold hours. The new factory also has the support of heavy hitters from the state, such as Senator Connie Leyva, and Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez, as well as federal bigwigs like Senator Judy Chu and Representative Norma Torres.


Mr. Hartman’s biggest thanks are reserved for state Assemblymember Chris Holden.


“He’s the one who was responsible for shepherding the request for the $2.1 million that we received from the 2019-20 California budget as a line item to start the factory,” Mr. Hartman said. “So we’re celebrating the factory, and all the people who have gotten us here, and Assemblyman Holden was kind of a figurehead of that, and so we’re celebrating him as well.”


He also singled out Pilgrim Place, the cities of Claremont and Pomona, “and hundreds of homeowners around the community who supported us and believed in us, and started retrofitting their homes to save energy and to increase their comfort and their indoor air quality. And it’s just grown from there.


“It’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “And now we’re going to be able to start changing the business model in how solar is being deployed in the United States.”


The Pomona factory is waiting on certifications for its solar panel from the National Testing Laboratories. It hopes to secure those by summer, and will then be able to begin hiring and manufacturing.


“And by the fall we well be making panels for the market,” Mr. Hartman said.


The factory will create some 200 positions, and an additional 500 “indirect” jobs as result of the newfound buying power of those workers, Mr. Hartman said. Entry level warehouse and installation workers will make between $16 and $20 per hour.


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The nonprofit’s phase I goal is to install its solar panels on 6,000 low-to-moderate income homes in Pomona and Claremont. The switch to solar is projected to save those residents a combined $6.5 million in energy costs yearly.


Once the Pomona facility is up and running, the plan is to replicate the Pomona template and take it nationwide.


“We’ve been working now in several areas across California, including Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez Valley, Yolo County, Huntington Beach, Monrovia and Riverside,” Mr. Hartman said.

Mr. Hartman’s primary focus for more than a decade has been on getting this first solar panel factory open. With that on track now for a summer ribbon cutting, it’s time to take those big ideas and replicate them.


Every solar panel being installed in the United States today was made overseas.


“Our goal is to bring back the solar manufacturing industry to the United States, and to deploy it in a nonprofit business model that creates jobs and economic opportunity in disadvantaged communities across the United States,” he said.


The panels will be made up of parts from around the world, using the proprietary, patented architecture that simplifies manufacturing, reduces costs to consumers, and allows the process to be replicated in factories throughout the United States, thus creating thousands of middle class manufacturing and installation jobs.


The new technology is protected under federal patent law and cannot be monetized overseas. It can only be licensed to local nonprofits inside U.S. city jurisdictions, Mr. Hartman said.


“Right now we’re already in conversations with about eight other cities around the country. They will be our focus now for the rest of the year. We’ll be expanding to three or four new locations this year, and then the goal would be another at least 10 next year. We’re going to be busy designing and building solar factories.”


With the Biden administration making an immediate and decisive pivot toward renewable energy sources, among other new areas of infrastructure focus, it would seem the time is right to be opening the world’s first nonprofit solar panel assembly factory.

“Yeah, super good timing,” Mr. Hartman said. “Especially coming about of COVID. We see this project as a shovel-ready stimulus package that has the highest economic expansion multiplier for any program that could be funded to reinvigorate the economy after COVID.”


These feel-good business stories, the ones that line up with an administration in need of legislative support, are often singled out by presidents in their speeches and state of the union addresses. CHERP Solar Works seems a natural fit. 


“Let’s hope so!” Mr. Hartman said. “It’s kind of blowing our minds how our talking points are completely aligned with the Biden administration.”


Tuesday’s celebration was a rare moment of pause for CHERP’s team.


“At this opening event we’re all just taking a moment to reflect on how grateful we are to all the people and supporters who’ve gotten us this far,” Mr. Hartman said. “It would not have happened without the entire communities of Claremont and Pomona supporting us, along with of course our elected officials and Assemblyman Holden for going to bat for us at the California legislature.”


Tuesday’s celebration included an address from Assembly member Holden, who recalled introduction to Mr. Hartman at a community meeting at Mt. Baldy.


“That’s where you let me know how important it was to take this idea, and to not only grow it in the communities of Claremont and Pomona, but how it had the potential of being a seed in the ground that could really exponentially take off around the state of California,” Mr. Holden said. “And I think that’s where we are now.


“Now, here you are, doing wonderful things, addressing the issue of our environment by creating solar panels, creating jobs, working collaboratively with local government officials, stimulating the growth and development of downtowns in the Pomona area, and certainly as we see ourselves inching out of this pandemic, this is just what the doctor ordered in terms of creating opportunities for people to come together and have an idea that can not only create jobs, but also is good for the economy.


Mr. Hartman concluded the celebration with the announcement of a new initiative.


“Jennifer Granholm, the head of the U.S. Department of Energy, has just stated a goal for the United States, that the Department of Energy wants to get to 100 percent clean electricity by the year 2035.

“In order to do that, we’re going to need hundreds of millions of solar panels. Currently every panel solar panel being placed on buildings and homes today in the United States is coming from out of the country. This is creating billions of dollars in trade deficit. We’re hoping to turn that whole scenario on its head, by starting this factory that will grow into a network of locally grown factories across the country. So we’re starting an initiative right now called the 435 Democratic  Initiative. We have 435 congressional districts in this country, and our goal is to have a solar factory in each congressional district across the country.”


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