Photo: Cameron Phillips
On a typically bright day in the Inland Empire, members of the non-profit organization, GRID Alternatives, gather to celebrate a landmark five years of solar energy. Marking the occasion are volunteers, homeowners, donors and locals that have all played a vital role in the organization’s success. In that short time span, the branch converted 1,000 affordable homes to solar efficiency, trained over 1,200 volunteers, contributed $20 million dollars to the local solar economy, and saved what amounts to $30 million in electrical bills.
SolarCorps construction fellow, Ernesto Rochester, stands behind a model replica of the solar panels used in every build. He joined GRID in 2009 after serving eight years in the Marine Corps and enrolling at MiraCosta College to study environmental sustainability. Like many employed by the organization, he started as a volunteer and learned about solar panel installation through hundreds of hours on the job.
Rochester explains the science behind the Photovoltaic (PV) technology, how photons hit the panel causing electrons in the material to produce electricity. A micro-inverter converts the electricity from direct current (DC) into the more easily transmitted alternating current (AC), turning low-income homeowners into their own energy generators.
The tendency to treat renewable technology as purely environmental, and sustainable commodities like electric cars and solar powered appliances as luxuries, makes logical sense. Despite the falling overall cost, homeowners on low and fixed incomes find the upfront costs of procuring and installing solar panels generally prohibitive. Yet the practice of taking an essentialist view of renewable energy as only serving the environment, or the affluent, discounts the technology’s ability to transform communities, create jobs and develop a growing workforce.
“The perks are threefold,” says development coordinator for the Inland Empire, Clifford LeBlanc.
The Largest Non-Profit Solar Installer in the U.S.
Co-founded by Erica Mackie and Tim Sears during the California energy crisis of 2001, GRID Alternatives set out to bring the cost saving benefits of PV solar power and renewable energy to disadvantaged communities in Oakland California. As the largest non-profit solar installer in the US, it now hosts locations across California and the U.S., including Colorado, Tri-state New York and, most recently, Nicaragua.
Speaking at the event on the rapid success in the Inland Empire, CEO Mackie reflects on GRID’s reach in other cities. “We’ve had a lot of success with smaller cities and even larger cities saying, ‘Please come to our communities.’ They want to know, ‘How can we help introduce you to our low income constituents, help get job training and our community colleges out helping [to] install?’”
The technology behind GRID’s brand of PV renewable energy may be driven by environmental factors, but its tenets are not equally bound. For low-income communities, solar power is the literal conduit through which jobs are created and community building takes place. Regional director for the Inland Empire, A. Bambi Tran, calls solar technology a “tool mechanism” to propel the local economy and prepare workers for the solar industry.
California leads the pack in renewable energy compliant states, and solar remains one of the few industries on a steady upward trajectory, holding strong even during the 2007 recession. According to the California Solar Job Census for 2015, the state set another record-breaking year in 2015, with more than 7,400 megawatts (MW) of photovoltaic (PV) capacity expected to have been installed—an 18.5 percent increase over that of 2014—bringing total U.S. solar capacity to nearly 27.5 gigawatts (GW).
“People Are Giving You Something for Nothing.”
In addition to job training, several elements had to coalesce on a governmental and institutional level to make GRID, and the programs that bolster it, successful. In 2008, the non-profit became the official administrator of the Single-family Affordable Solar Homes Program (SASH), a program created under assembly bill 2723 that provides incentives to homeowners residing in designated affordable housing areas. Those incentives take the form of upfront rebates from for-profit companies to defer the cost of solar paneling for homeowners who qualify.
Predating the SASH program was Senate Bill 535, The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The bill required the state board to monitor and regulate greenhouse gas emissions and mandated that the California Environmental Protection Agency identify investment opportunities aimed at affordable housing under California’s extensive Cap and Trade program. Additional funding comes from Bank of American, Wells Fargo, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) and private donors.
“People are giving you something for nothing. That doesn’t happen. I searched and searched and searched and I found not one bad thing about GRID, only good things,” says Inland Empire resident Marty Sigarto of his girlfriend Pat Willis’s experience with GRID. Tran echoes his remarks, noting that homeowners frequently question whether the service is too good to be true.
Disabled veterans and elderly persons with disabilities make up a sizable portion of GRID’s clients. Many have heat sensitivities and medical equipment requiring electrical hookups that drive utility bills through the roof. According to Tran, solar costs amount to 50-75 percent less than traditional electric, saving homeowners an average of $25,000 over the lifetime of the unit.
Language Is Not a Barrier to Solar Service
Word of mouth seems to be the most reliable form of advertisement among low-income constituents who may not otherwise know the program exists. Norman Graham works in the construction department for the Los Angeles location. His mother, a GRID beneficiary, left friends incredulous when she presented them with her first bill post-installation. The charges came to four dollars, down from $150 the month prior.
A team of coordinators strives to make the vetting process as seamless as possible. Project managers sort all of the relevant data that goes into a build, while the outreach department serves as the main point of contact between the organization and qualifying homeowners. The ability to connect with the communities they service cross-culturally and through language barriers plays an equally vital part in GRID’s mission. Establishing a certain level of trust further blurs the line between the provider and recipient and encourages more homeowners to seek out the program.
Ernesto Rochester shows special sensitivity towards vets, loosening the language he uses to foster a sense of ease and camaraderie during installations. His Spanish is an asset on builds that require it.
“The communities that we work in aren’t anything unfamiliar…We try to serve the broad demographic but also have programs that focus on specific segments of that demographic,” he says, referring to builds that involve veterans, tribal members and the previously incarcerated.
Women the Largest Minority in California’s Solar Workforce
By census account, women make up the largest minority group of California’s solar workforce at 27.7 percent, followed by Latinos and Hispanics at 14.4 percent and adults over the age of 55 at 9.2 percent. Veterans make up 9.2 percent compared to 4.6 percent of the state’s total workforce. Employment opportunities in the renewable field are plentiful, but the pool of qualified applicants is shallow. Whether the environmental benefit of solar power is tertiary to job creation and quality of life is a difficult question to answer. For one thing, providing training and job opportunities makes the long-term benefits of solar technology harder to quantify.
“Workforce development was a really important part [of GRID’s mission], even though it wasn’t the original intention of the organization. In some ways it was the most valuable piece of the work […] It was so evident that the reason why people were in this room was to do something with their lives and get skills and jobs in this growing industry,” says executive director for the Los Angeles branch, Michael Kadish.
GRID makes those introductions through programs designed to target women, veterans and students of all ages, with the goal of making the solar industry more diverse and inclusive. Many of its current employees got their start in these programs, and the current roster of volunteers is equally diverse. It consists of former veterans, retired civil engineers and one Italian expatriate.
“It’s About Making a Difference in the Environment in Which You Live”
Giovanni Esti hails from Italy and volunteers for GRID alternatives in the Inland Empire. After studying to becoming a Christian Scholar and moving to Egypt, he purchased a plot of land there to aid refugees. Helping the environment, he says, in effect helps individuals and society. “The environment shapes the individuals. Quality of life is not just measured on the amount of income you get, it’s about making a difference in the environment in which you live. That self-satisfaction, once people experience it, it’s convincing. It makes them feel that actually they can make a difference.”
Esti moved to the Inland Empire to learn more about renewable energy, specifically, how to extract water from wells using solar technology. Solar power is widely used throughout the African continent, but lack of non-profit funding prevents it from being scalable in a meaningful way. He will return to Egypt with a fuller understanding of the business model that makes the organization tick, that finding an equitable way to harness energy from a plentiful, free resource like the sun is a revelation for communities experiencing hardship.