Solar panels for low-income homes

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For many homeowners, solar energy seems like an environmental luxury that is far out of reach. Suggest solar energy to a family living in low-income housing and you’ll likely be met with raised eyebrows or a dismissive shake of the head. Phrases like “greenhouse gas emissions” and “renewable energy” can seem like far-flung concerns when faced with the more immediate realities of working long hours, putting meals on the table, or making sure the kids do their homework.

Think again. The Oakland, California-based non-profit GRID Alternatives believes that solar panels can solve more that just energy problems, and—with a little help from the community—can be an accessible amenity for low-income residents.

“Our main program is the Solar Affordable Housing Program, where we help make solar affordable for low-income home owners…who really need the savings that solar can provide,” co-founder and co-director Tim Sears explained.

GRID Alternatives leverages a subsidy provided by the state of California, and uses corporate and private donations to offset the cost of the actual solar panels and installation equipment. To minimize labor costs, the organization mobilizes a group of volunteers and trainees, along with the homeowners and their neighbors, to install the panels.

Tim Sears founded the organization with Erica Mackie during California’s energy crisis in 2001. Their Solar Affordable Housing Program was launched in 2004, and has since provided 444 solar electric systems for low-income families in California. Mackie and Sears estimate that each system will reduce the family’s electricity bill by 75 percent, altogether providing about $8.9 million in energy. Over the next 30 years, the 444 systems that have been installed will prevent roughly 35,971 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

One client, Mrs. Shabaz, was optimistic about the positive impact that her family’s new solar system would have on their lives.

“Hopefully we’ll be saving a lot of money on our electricity bill,” she said. “That money can go toward my children’s college funds.”

Erica Mackie describes the installation process to be like a “barn raising,” as neighbors often come out onto the street to at least watch, if not to lend a hand. The result is not only reduced labor costs, but a greater awareness of energy and environmental issues in the neighborhood.

Homeowners who participate in the installation become familiar with system maintenance and neighbors might be inspired to look into solar systems for their own homes. Whether or not community members end up participating in the program or helping out with the installation, just seeing their neighbors invest in and make improvements to their homes can create a sense of neighborhood pride, which in turn helps to forge a safer and closer community.

In neighborhoods where unemployment is often high, these solar panel “barn raisings” drum up awareness and interest in one of GRID Alternatives many solar installation job training programs, which ready participants for careers in the booming solar industry.

GRID Alternatives sets out to prove that solar panels can positively impact homeowners and neighborhoods, beyond just cheaper utility bills.

“It’s a great experience,” Mrs. Shabaz said, “to see so many people getting involved, putting their time in—their effort—to help people like us.”