By Hannah Goetz
Imogene Boatswain wants her Dorchester community to find a bright spot amidst the gloom of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The working mother of three from the Caribbean island of Montserrat is no stranger to navigating hardship. At just 19 years old, Boatswain’s life was upended.
“Hurricane Hugo took half the island,” said Boatswain. With her three-year-old son in tow, the young mother fled massive destruction from the 1989 tempest to find a familiar embrace in unfamiliar territory. With dreams of one day building her own home, Boatswain settled in at her mother’s Boston apartment.
Now she finds herself on the frontlines of the fight against both COVID-19 and economic uncertainty. As a healthcare worker and childcare provider, Boatswain risks exposure to the virus everyday while getting by on a limited income.
“It’s hard to catch up,” said Boatswain, explaining that the bills for her Barry Street apartment, which she shares with her two younger sons – who both recently lost their jobs because of the pandemic – are often just too high.
At 49 years old, Boatswain is still working towards buying a house—a goal she says often feels out of reach. Seeking to foster resiliency for her community and her family, Boatswain found a sunny reprieve in a new initiative that offers financial relief and an equitable share in the future she’s building.
Imogene and 625 other households will unlock access to previously costly green energy at a 50% discount because a closed landfill in Ashland is now home to a 5.8 megawatt low-income community solar farm. The new project, built by Boston-based Citizens Energy Corporation and part of its JOE-4-SUN community solar program, offers subscribers about $300 in annual electricity savings and the deepest discount on solar energy in the state.
Boatswain says she is grateful “to get the help,” and, in addition to saving money on her electric bill every month, is looking forward to participating in the renewable energy revolution.
As a deaconess at the Full Life Gospel Center in Dorchester, Boatswain takes pride in helping her neighbors, buoyed by her lifelong Pentecostal faith. Her pastor, also from Montserrat, provides another comforting link to her homeland, called the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” for its resemblance to coastal Ireland and the predominant mix of Irish and African blood in its population.
Though times are tough in Boston, returning to the 40-square-mile island of her birth is not an option. The 1995 eruption of a volcano that had been dormant for centuries buried the Leeward Island capital in 40 feet of mud. Most of the community fled to England, qualifying for residency as citizens of a British Overseas Territory.
She sometimes regrets not moving to England herself, where many relatives received both housing and free higher education after leaving Montserrat. “But now I’m a true Bostonian,” she says in her island accent. “I love the Bruins, the Patriots, the Red Sox and the Celtics.”
She also appreciates the opportunities in Massachusetts for regular families, especially renters who can’t put solar panels atop their own roofs, to tap into renewable energy.
Boatswain believes community solar is a tool that can help everyone find their footing as costs increase and climate change creeps its way into our daily lives. Access to renewable energy has long been restricted to wealthy homeowners, but, through this new program, Boatswain is joining a new wave of renters building equity in both their futures and those of their families.
The ground-mounted array, built with almost 16,000 panels, is one of six arrays comprising the company’s cutting-edge JOE-4-SUN program. The Boston-based non-profit uses energy from its projects to provide discount green power to Massachusetts, New York and California families in need.
The company was founded by former U.S. Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II in 1979 to make life’s basic needs more affordable. Citizens Energy’s first projects provided discount heating oil and in the last ten years have transitioned to affordable renewable energy.
“We are a different kind of energy company,” said Kennedy, who has dedicated his career to fighting industry norms and economic inequality. “We are building equity, resiliency and community by putting money back into the pockets of those so often left behind.”
While there is little the average person can do about the global pandemic, Boatswain says there is a little something the average person can do about global warming.
“I would like to have solar one day if I have a house,” said Boatswain, explaining that this program is the perfect first step into renewables.
Like the community garden across the street from her first-floor apartment, Boatswain thinks this project can brighten city streets with a shared sense of purpose. By signing up for JOE-4-SUN, she says everyday families can cut both carbon emissions and household electricity costs without making costly investments.
“Try it. It’s for people who can’t afford this normally,” encouraged Boatswain. “It’s affordable.”
She mailed in a paper application and is now seeing savings on her electric bill.
The solar array is live and spots in the program are limited. Families can apply online at www.citizensenergy.com or call (855) JOE-4-SUN.