Last summer while working at One Block Off the Grid, I helped put some solar panels up with a couple of 1BOG interns, @ecokeally and @stephenayang, thanks to the Oakland nonprofit GRID Alternatives. They train volunteers to install solar panels and inverters for (and sometimes with) low-income homeowners.
By “helped” I mean “provided a pair of hands and an avenue through which to solicit corporate donations.” That’s not a ding on GRID; they’ve got to get money somehow, and this was the equivalent of a fancy-plate fundraiser with more solar and less salmon. Their usual volunteer sessions are (I hear) much more intensive than the one-day Solarthon I participated in.
I took some notes after and thought I’d throw them up here. Lightly edited to remove all the references to 1BOG’s competitors as “asshats,” of course. (Aside: does it bother you that commas and periods always go inside quotes? I’m going to switch to the British system, where logic dictates where they goes. Really, I just looked this up– they would have written it “asshats”. Does that not make so much more sense?)
- You never want to say “heads up” on a construction site, you say “headache” or anything else that doesn’t make people look up– because then they’ll get hit in the face by the falling object.
- The vast majority of the men took yellow hard hats, and most of the women took white or blue hard hats. Why? Tangentially: does stereotype threat exist for physical abilities too?
- I will never hear the words “fish”, “stripper” and “Fresno” the same way again. (The fish, or wire fisher, helps pull the wiring through 100ft+ of metal conduit piping from the inverter box in the garage to the panels on the roof; the wire stripper strips wire; and our intrepid leader loved talking about installing solar in his native Fresno. For instance, in Fresno, they recommend washing panels every 3-6 weeks because of the dust. 5%+ decrease if you don’t. Up to 20% for lots of it. I was surprised because I’ve always heard that you don’t need to wash more than once a year except in unusual circumstances.)
- Our other intrepid leader has a day job as the advertising director for Stanford Magazine (the alumni magazine), helps the GRID student group at Stanford, and has been going to Burning Man since the start, when it was in SF. Really cool guy.
- If we had known they were giving out prizes for donations raised, we could have gotten “3rd place” and a Kill-a-Watt, between us. Oh well.
- For some reason– nobody could figure out why– the install was designed for the north side of the roof, even though an equally large, unshaded portion of the roof was available on the south side of the roof, where they would have produced far more electricity. They have professionals review the blueprints, ostensibly, so no idea why this happened.
- Apparently it’s well-known that installers paid by the job will usually plan to do it in one day, and installers paid by the hour will usually plan to do it over two days. Structure your incentives correctly!
- Mini ratcheting offset screwdrivers are INCREDIBLY COOL. And Harbor Freight sells’em for cheap.
- Nearly 200 people participated in putting up a hundred solar panels on 9 houses! About 2 kilowatts per system. And raised $100K for GRID– each house cost $5K+ to sponsor, for starters. (Salesforce.com had their “Earthforce” team, Google had their solar-panel-decorated logo up, several other corporations.)
- 1BOG’s installers use high quality parts! At least, higher quality than the ones used by GRID according to our installer-from-Fresno. Our installers frequently use SMA (Sunpower) inverters, which are more advanced– dual fans instead of a giant heatsink, integrated circuits instead of lots of copper coil. Much smaller and lighter.
- Solar feels less mysterious and intimidating now– someone handy who participates in an installation and puts in a significant amount of time to learn it all, could easily install their own system (though they’d still need an electrician.) The process is still unstandardized– every installer puts in solar differently– but the parts themselves aren’t terribly difficult to work with… it’s not like you’re soldering circuits or something. The 2% who have the motivation to do this, can/should do it. 1BOG works for the other 98%.
- “Solarthon” meant “instead of our usual two-day installations where the primary goal is using volunteers for slightly trained labor, we will do all the prep the day before using our usual volunteers, and then leave all the fun stuff for Solarthon day, so that we can sign up corporate sponsors en masse– oh, right, and their employees can come be volunteers too. Ah, and we’ll serve them lunch too. and invite some politicians.”
- Try volunteering with GRID! It’s difficult to get in individually because the waiting list for their orientations is so long. We got in because one of our funders’ nonprofit, Ordinary People, sponsored a house. But if you want to try signing up yourself just go to http://www.gridalternatives.org/.
I personally found the experience very educational and surprisingly fun. (Mostly because the hard work had been done for us.) I would have liked information on what economic impact GRID Alternatives has compared to simply subsidizing electricity bills for low-income families. (Not that it could substitute–I’m just curious.) Regardless, it’s a great way to introduce residential solar–which still seems exotic and unaffordable to many people, even though it’s practical and often a good financial decision–to Bay Area residents.
If you’re interested in learning more about Grid Alternatives, a project manager at Adobe Systems, Rosana Francescato, wrote a great post about her Grid Alternatives experience here.
If you’re interested in putting solar on your own roof and don’t want to spend 50+ hours figuring out what everything means and which installer to go with, check out One Block Off the Grid (“Groupon for solar”). It’s free, you don’t have to worry about getting a great deal and they have real live experts sitting in San Francisco to answer all your questions. You can also use 1BOG’s advanced online solar estimate tool to figure out how much it’ll cost you, and how much you’ll save.
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- Solarthon: Installing Solar Panels for Low-Income Families in Oakland via GRID Alternatives
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