Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Solar Help For Low-Income Communities

Volunteers needed; will get training in solar installation

GRID Alternatives is a nonprofit organization that brings the benefits of solar technology to communities that would not otherwise have access. Using a barn-raising model, they lead teams of volunteers and job trainees to install solar electric systems for low income homeowners, providing needed savings for families struggling to make ends meet, preparing workers for jobs in the fast-growing solar industry and helping clean the environment.

Maggie Graham, outreach and volunteer coordinator, new to the area from Virginia, was hired to open GRID's new office in Willits to serve Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt, upper Sonoma and Del Norte counties. She and Cora Saxton, solar installation supervisor, are seeking eligible homeowners for installation of photovoltaic systems and volunteers who want to gain hands-on experience in the field installing the systems.

GRID Alternatives is an international nonprofit with eight offices in California with the newest satellite in Willits. They have offices in Denver, Colorado, New York, serving a tri-state area, a voluntourism program in Nicaragua, a national pilot program in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and projects in Washington and Arizona. Erica Mackie and Tim Shears started the nonprofit in 2001 in response to the California energy crisis with the idea of developing free clean energy from the sun for everyone.

Saxton who taught for three years in the sustainable technology program at Mendocino College is looking for volunteers, ages 16 and up, who are interested in developing job skills to enter the industry, community members who are interested in installing their own systems and individuals who are interested in participating in a community, educational experience. No experience is required; job training happens on the job and skills include locating rafters, mapping the array, stand off installation, junction box, wiring, home run wiring, ground wiring, module installation, conduit bending and inverter wiring. For those who are interested the next mandatory volunteer orientation will be on Tuesday, August 12th from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Willits Library.

The projects usually take two days, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and volunteers are requested to participate for at least one of those days.

GRID Alternatives has been serving the area since 2009 from their Oakland office and at the end of 2013, a very generous donation allowed them to open the office in Willits in May and set up the volunteer model to better serve and provide job training. Teams range in number from 3 to 10 members.

They can award North American Board of Energy Certified practitioner status to those who want to work in the industry.

Recent work sites have been primarily in Pt. Arena on tribal lands and they have completed 12 homes. Candidates for installation must own their own homes, be income qualified and have purchased their home through a low-income assistance program.

Their goal is to provide solar systems at low or no cost; sometimes there is a gap fee. Their funding comes from a variety of sources including private donors, corporate, and equipment-owner sponsors. Their main source of funding is from the California SASH (Single Family Affordable Homes) Program, a state rebate through the California Public Utilities Commission.

Saxton particularly likes the way GRID incorporates so many facets of the community. "We teach students in job training who want hands on experience and low income homeowners who need the savings most, and at the same time w are helping the environment by promoting renewable energy. We are addressing people, the planet and employment."

With a grant from Sun Edison, a photovoltaic manufacture, and the vision of Mackie, GRID is working to create a national women in solar initiative promoting women in the trades. Graham says, "We are trying to put together an all woman install, allowing woman the chance to get their their hands on all the tools. Part of the grant money went to 20 solar core internship positions, a one-year paid training for women. Our goal is to get 1000 women volunteers worldwide.

They have established a solar corps fellows program, a one-year placement at GRID Alternatives providing those interns with the opportunity to learn about solar and the inner workings of a nonprofit.

GRID is the largest nonprofit solar installer in the country and the 6th largest in California. Their systems range from 1.8 KW to 5 KW and they do both micro inverter and string inverter systems; solar panel installation, wiring connecting into main service panels, safety disconnects when necessary, flashing and rails to support the modules. Photovoltaic cells are installed on roofs that are within 40 degrees of true south, not shaded and have 10-plus years left.

Since 2004 they installed 70KW of solar energy on 46 homes in Mendocino County diverting the same amount of green house gases equivalent to planting over 100,000 trees or taking 790 cars off the road and saved homeowners over $1.4 million. In California they installed 13,000 KW of solar energy on over 4400 homes saving homeowners over $110 million.


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