Jessica Pitts and John Miller founded their company, Flywheel Development, in 2014 to implement sustainability concepts and renewable energy in and around Washington, D.C. With backgrounds in policy, planning, and energy services, it was clear to both Jessica and John that industry leaders have a big impact on progress towards achieving sustainability goals on a regional basis.
In the U.S., commercial and residential buildings account for 40% of energy consumed, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, making them a prime target for those interested in combating climate change, and in urban environments, such as Washington, D.C., the share of energy usage and GHG emissions produced by buildings can be significantly higher. This creates a meaningful opportunity to transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at scale. While policy making efforts that help cities become more sustainable and reduce their energy use often take years to fully implement, companies such as Flywheel Development are at the leading edge of these efforts.
“Policy follows what’s possible in industry,” Jessica said. “You need industry leaders out there creating change and demonstrating that it’s possible to build buildings and create urban environments that are more sustainable than the status quo.” With this philosophy, Jessica and John focused on solutions to climate change that can be replicated in communities across the country.
Building Something Sustainable
Flywheel Development’s first project was a set of net-zero Passive House sustainable townhouses in Mount Rainier, Maryland, right across the line from D.C. The project was a resounding success, and the building program included innovations such as the region’s first combined solar-green roof installation. With this momentum, Jessica and John expanded Flywheel Development’s business to include green infrastructure projects.
In 2017, Jessica and John started with three solar projects, and that effort quickly grew to completing approximately 10 commercial solar projects a year. To date, Flywheel Development has built over 49 solar projects in the District of Columbia and nearby Maryland. Many of the projects are part of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment’s Solar for All program, which aims to bring the benefits of solar energy to 100,000 low- to moderate-income families throughout the District of Columbia. As a long-term partner with the program, Flywheel Development’s solar projects, such as those located in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8, provide clean energy to those that need it most. And by opting into the program, Solar for All participants – including residents of single-family homes, multi-family buildings and rental units – can expect to see a 50 percent savings on their electricity bills for 15 years.
“Because we’re able to meet with folks and learn and understand what a community’s needs are, we can create great outcomes, not only for our company, but for our partner communities,” John explained. “We want to partner with communities to share in the benefits of the green economy and leave them meaningfully better than we found them.”
More recently, the company has added stormwater projects — such as rain gardens — to its green infrastructure repertoire. These projects are largely part of a program in the District that aims to detain stormwater in critical watersheds to help restore the area’s rivers and streams. According to John, adding stormwater management infrastructure to Flywheel’s offerings was a natural step in the company’s evolution. That’s because, at its core, Flywheel is focused on reinvesting in urban neighborhoods by taking on responsive projects that are informed by partnerships that co-create value together with communities.
It was through a mutual industry contact that Jessica met Bill Greenleaf, the solar energy and commercial real estate loan officer at Virginia Community Capital (VCC). VCC was established by a group of bipartisan state legislators in 2006 to attract social investors to create jobs, enhance the quality of life, and promote vibrant communities in historically underserved areas. Interestingly, VCC is structured both as a for-profit bank and as a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). CNote deploys Impact CashTM dollars in mission-driven and FDIC- and NCUA-insured CDFI partners like VCC, generating returns on institutional investors’ cash allocations while supporting financially underserved communities across the country.
According to Jessica, once she and Bill got to talking about Flywheel Development’s involvement in the Solar for All program, the two discovered that they had a lot in common. Clean energy is one of VCC’s four lending areas (not to mention one of Bill’s passions), and VCC has done solar lending across Virginia, the District of Columbia, and as far away as New York. “Bill was on board immediately in terms of the work that we’re doing,” said Jessica. “VCC’s mission-driven nature and focus on community investing is evident in how they work with people.”
In fall 2021, Flywheel Development received its first loan from VCC for a portfolio of Solar for All projects. This financing included both a five-year loan from VCC and a 12-year loan from DC Green Bank. The relationship didn’t end there. Both Flywheel Development and VCC enjoyed working together so much that a year later, the two closed financing on Flywheel’s Solar for All 2022 portfolio of projects – getting them off the ground and onto the grid. Additionally, over the course of the past year, VCC has helped to connect Flywheel Development with other customers that the CDFI works with, helping to establish new relationships in the community.
For co-founders Jessica and John at Flywheel Development, it’s these kinds of mission-aligned partnerships that keep them pushing toward a more sustainable future. “We can’t do this work alone,” said Jessica. “You can do more when you partner with people, have a larger vision, and put a team together to do it. We understand the importance of those relationships, and so does VCC. We couldn’t do this important work without them.”
- Flywheel Development is a leading sustainable development company. They are active in real estate, solar development, and stormwater management infrastructure
- Virginia Community Capital is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) with a mission to create jobs, energize places, and promote an enhanced quality of life for Virginians.
- CNote is a women-led investment platform that empowers individuals and institutions to invest locally to further economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and address climate change.