Gary, Indiana Looks Toward A Bright Solar Future

| By Zack Loehle, Interstate Renewable Energy Council

Photo credit: City of Gary/American Water.

Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, near Indiana Dunes National Park, Gary, Indiana was once home to the largest steel mill in the United States and employed thousands of people in the steel industry. With the decline of U.S. steel manufacturing in the 1970s, though, Gary was hit hard, losing the city’s main economic driver and the community that had grown up around it. Today, this majority-Black city has 32% of residents living in poverty and is disproportionately impacted by pollution. 

Now, however, Gary is working hard to reinvent itself—including with an embrace of sustainability and solar power. The City of Gary recently earned SolSmart Bronze designation, and is connecting residents with the economic and environmental benefits of solar. That begins with the Soul Power program, part of the city’s SolarizeGary initiative.

The Soul Power program was developed in 2022 in partnership with nearby Michigan City, Indiana (a SolSmart Silver designee) and the local NAACP Chapter. This initiative trains local residents, particularly people of color and low-income residents, for jobs as solar installers—and then connects them with employment opportunities. 

“Once the participants completed the Soul Power program, all of the individuals who earned that certification were immediately recruited for employment, and that’s a great thing,” said Brenda Scott-Henry, Director of the City of Gary Department of Sustainability and Environmental Affairs. Today, thirty-two certificates have been earned for OSHA 10 and NABCEP Photovoltaic Associates training.

While working to connect residents with solar jobs, the City of Gary has also undertaken efforts to increase the amount of solar providing electricity to the community. This is especially notable given that Gary once sat in the shadow of the massive Dean Mitchell Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that shuttered in 2010. 

In 2016, the City of Gary worked with the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the Better Buildings Accelerator: Clean Energy for Low-Income Communities, a program that supported plans for increased energy efficiency and clean energy targeted toward low-income communities. That process led to a renewable energy action plan and a solar feasibility study for the city. The local utility, NIPSCO, was a stakeholder and a partner in that effort.  As a result of that process, NIPSCO has set a goal of installing 2300 MW of renewable energy generation within their northern Indiana service area, including solar power. 

Along with the increase in utility-scale solar, Gary has worked to increase local interest in  rooftop solar.  That included participation in a 2016 Solarize Northwest Indiana campaign, which allowed people to purchase rooftop solar at a lower group rate. The Solarize campaign also spurred other solar installations in the community, even if they were not directly connected to the overall campaign.

One example was the Progressive Community Church in the low-income neighborhood of Emerson, which also hosts a farm and other community resources through the Families Anchored in Total Harmony Community Development Corporation (FAITH CDC). “They installed a rooftop solar array, and then used the revenue to help with the community farm…the farm is helping provide fresh local produce for the Emerson neighborhood,” said Scott-Henry. 

But there is still a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to providing equitable access to solar energy. “The households who are in most need of solar are those who cannot afford it, and that has always been one of the challenges that we’ve had,” said Scott-Henry. 

That is where SolSmart comes in: Through receiving SolSmart designation, Gary may now be a stronger candidate for federal funds that will support and accelerate efforts to deploy solar energy, particularly in low-income communities in the city.

“I think any community who is considering getting solar-ready should really go through the SolSmart designation, even if it’s just a Bronze, so they can really understand what it takes to ready your community for solar installations,” Scott-Henry said. SolSmart has given the community a roadmap to get to where they are now, as well as a clear path forward to continue expanding and connecting residents with the benefits of solar energy. 

“I think what is really helpful about SolSmart is that it provided the resources and the steps that the city could take to make this very broad and sometimes overwhelming solar-ready concept more accessible,” said Celeste Kopperl, who as a graduate student at Indiana University worked with the city to complete the SolSmart designation process. 

Any city, county, or regional organization across the U.S. can achieve SolSmart designation. To get started, contact us here, and begin your own path toward a cleaner energy future.