Grid Alternatives: Building Community Through Solar Power

Grid Alternatives

GRID Alternatives is on a mission to prove that solar panels can do so much more than reduce carbon emissions. Inspired by the community barn-raising model of old, GRID Alternatives works with local volunteers and job trainees to install photovoltaic (PV) solar systems on the homes of low-income families. The panels stabilize and reduce electricity bills for the families, who can then use the savings for other crucial expenses like food and school supplies. Job trainees can parlay their hands-on experience installing the panels into full-time jobs in the solar industry, a growing field that offers well-paying jobs even for those without a college degree. Low-income communities, who are often the most adversely affected by traditional sources of energy production like coal- burning, benefit from reduced pollution locally, and all of us, of course, benefit from reduced carbon emissions.

Co-founders Erica Mackie and Tim Sears previously worked as professional engineers implementing large- scale renewable energy and energy efficiency projects for the private sector; but as Mackie explained, “We’d write up reports telling big companies how they could save millions of dollars through energy upgrades, and then we’d come back to our homes, here to the Bay Area, where our neighbors were struggling to pay their electric bills and people were being left on the sidelines of the clean tech job boom for lack of training. We thought if we could just get enough people together, we could change who has access to clean power and its benefits.” So in 2001 they founded GRID Alternatives, which later became the statewide administrator for California’s solar rebate program for low-income families.

In recent years, GRID Alternatives has expanded around the country and to Nicaragua with a diverse set of programs and initiatives. In Colorado, for example, the organization works with rural electric utilities to build community solar gardens, which allow renters or anyone else who cannot put panels on their own roof to enjoy the benefits of solar energy.

In the fall of 2015, GRID Alternatives brought solar panels and solar job training opportunities to Native American tribal areas to highlight the unique challenges many tribal members face around energy and energy access. Mackie explained, “Over the course of two weeks, we installed solar in four different communities around the country, providing both solar power and solar job training to tribal members. One of the projects was for Henry Yazzie, a Navajo veteran in Leupp, Arizona, who, like more than 15,000 other Navajo families, had never had electricity before. Members of several local chapter houses and other tribal volunteers came out to help with the installation. Seeing the smile on his face when he flipped the switch, and knowing what a huge difference it would make for his life, was a powerful reminder of why we do this work.”

GRID Alternatives has demonstrated that solar energy is a powerful tool for addressing not only environmental challenges, but economic and social challenges, as well. As the solar industry continues to grow, GRID Alternative plans to continue to grow with it, leveraging the power of the sun to build stronger communities.

Grid Alternatives

This article appeared in Issue 6 | March/April 2016

To read more inspiring articles from Issue 6 including stories about Greyston Bakery, Dave's Killer Bread, Rising Tide Car wash, and our cover story featuring Leila Janah, Founder of Samasource, purchase a copy of Issue 6 online or on newsstands!

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