I am so excited about sharing this story! Why, might you ask? I’m excited because this is a story that shines the light on success at its best! It’s a story about a little Black girl full of intelligence and spunk who I watched grow into an incredible, beautiful, and awesome woman. Her name is Kristal Hansley!
Kristal, 33 years old, is a Howard University Graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Sociology. She is an entrepreneur, and advocate for the use of solar power to help hard-working families reduce monthly expenses. Kristal hails from Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY and was raised by her grandmother, Avellar, who in her own right was a community icon. Her grandmother founded a community garden on the block where they lived. Eventually the garden was named after her as well as the street.
A Tree Grows Out of Brooklyn
Kristal, gifted and talented in school and who also played the piano, grew up surrounded by community. After school and in between piano lessons, I can remember seeing Kristal and her grandmother out and about, making their way to neighborhood meetings. In an interview with Vogue, Kristal shared “I hated it at first, but then it was already entrenched in my life.” She didn’t know then that her grandmother was planting a special seed within her: a love for community, and a love for the earth. Now, the cultivating of the soil takes shape.
Kristal became the first Black woman to launch a community solar company when she founded WeSolar, a company providing affordable energy to low- and moderate-income families currently in and around the Washington, DC-Baltimore area. What makes her accomplishment so special is that the solar industry is notoriously dominated by white people or, well, white men. Among senior executives, 88% are white and 80% are men, according to the 2019 U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study.
Solar energy is radiant light and heat from the Sun that is harnessed using a range of technologies such as solar power to generate electricity, solar thermal energy including solar water heating, and solar architecture. Its origin dates back centuries. In theory, solar energy was used by humans as early as 7th century B.C. when history tells us that humans used sunlight to light fires with magnifying glass materials. In 3rd century B.C., the Greeks and Romans were known to harness solar power with mirrors to light torches for religious ceremonies.
The Power of Solar Energy
In Maryland, customers owe about $300 million in unpaid gas and electric bills. Black households across the U.S. pay more for their energy than white households, according to a June 2020 working paper. WeSolar promises to reduce its low- to moderate-income customers’ bills by at least 25%. The company also skips fees and allows customers to cancel without penalty. On average, their customers stand to save about $300 a year by going solar.
That’s its power: community solar can be more accessible than the rooftop solar. Customers don’t have to purchase and install panels themselves. They can purchase or lease panels that sit on a solar farm nearby. A solar farm is a large collection of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels that absorb energy from the sun, convert it into electricity and send that electricity to the power grid for distribution and consumption by customers. Customers receive credits on their energy bills as a result. This breaks down the barriers many residents face to accessing renewable energy, especially those who rent or whose roofs can’t support this technology.
As the Founder and CEO of WeSolar, Kristal brings affordable and accessible community solar energy to under-resourced communities. Before founding WeSolar, Kristal was the director of Government and Community Relations for a leading community solar energy enterprise in Maryland. In this role, Kristal helped thousands of low- to moderate-income families save hundreds annually on their electricity bills.
Kristal is the former Community Affairs Liaison for U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton and former Program Manager for the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative at the Office of the Majority Leader Harry Reid. To her credit, Kristal possesses a portfolio that is impressive, to say the least, and it doesn’t stop there.
Before transitioning to the sustainability industry, Kristal worked as a Capitol Hill lobbyist for five years, and later she got into the solar game. She learned about policy implementation and how that translates into changes in the community. In 2019, Maryland passed a bill to transition the state to 100% clean energy by 2040. As part of this work, the state also formalized a program to provide grants and funding for community solar. Kristal saw an opening.
She first worked for another company, Neighborhood Sun, where she led its low- to moderate-income program. Her job was to get people within this income bracket signed up with the company’s solar farms. She spent time on the ground, knocking on doors, giving weekly presentations at local meetings—all to build relationships, to build trust. As she puts it, she became known as “the solar woman.”
Kristal learned that most households who were receiving renewable energy incentives were higher income. Noticing a problem, she wanted to find a way to address this gap. She had her own ideas on how to solve it and wanted to have agency over her own decisions. Eventually, Kristal left Neighborhood Sun to contract for them under her own company: WeSolar.
WeSolar launched June 20, 2020, on Juneteenth. Kristal said Juneteenth was chosen for the launch because it had always held special meaning to Black Americans “but it was especially poignant this year in the wake of the heightened killings of Black people by police and private citizens.”
Closing the Gap
Kristal’s solid political background and core skills combine a unique mix of leadership, strategic thinking and planning, effective communication, creative analysis, project management, and a proven ability to bridge connections amongst world leaders, municipalities, constituents, and institutions. It’s important having companies owned by people of color, managed by people of color, coming into communities of color. Those kinds of social elements, social connection, and trust are still significant in whether someone receives information about solar options and adopts it or not.
Trust is at the heart of Kristal’s work. She believes a lack of trust is why the solar industry struggles to attract low- to moderate-income customers. As a Black woman from the neighborhood, her customers may trust her just a bit more because she’s been where they are. After all, Kristal Hansley is a community organizer first.
Looking Forward and Up
Kristal is not your ordinary CEO. She didn’t come from a history of generational wealth. There was no family solar empire for her to inherit. She’s a Black woman in a predominantly white space. She did this on her own and is channeling her own energy back into the Black community, which the fossil fuel industry has long exploited through pollution and deceit. Maryland is only the beginning—WeSolar plans to soon expand to cities around the country. This is her personal contribution to fighting the climate crisis.
In 2022, WeSolar and the University of Maryland Medical System partnered to develop 8 MW (Mega Watts) community solar installation. The company has enlisted the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) as a development partner, which will pay a foundational commitment of $10,000 per month for up to 18 months to help with construction of the solar farm at a location to be determined in Baltimore City to power UMMS as well as low-income area residents.
Her grandmother Avellar looked to the soil and the plants. Decades later, Kristal is looking up to the sun and it’s “Kristal” clear! I couldn’t be prouder to see a little girl from Brooklyn grow into a woman in a world where the sky is the limit and beyond.
To learn more about WeSolar, visit wesolar.energy