GRID Alternatives Helps Low-Income Communities Use Solar Power


In California, low-income households often spend more money on electricity than more affluent residents and produce greenhouse gasses in the process.

But through the California Solar Initiative’s Single Family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) program, and an Oakland-based nonprofit firm called GRID Alternatives, the state’s low-income homeowners finally have the change to reduce their monthly electricity bills and decrease electricity usage.

Longtime friends and engineers, Erica Mackie and Tim Sears, founded GRID during the 2001 energy crisis.  While developing renewable energy systems for the private sector, Sears and Mackie decided to try and make the technology available to low-income communities.  Their model became GRID Alternatives’ first Solar Affordable Housing Program.

GRID was selected to manage the SASH Program through the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and funded by the state’s taxpayers.  Program goals include decreasing electricity usage without increasing monthly household expenses, providing full and partial incentives for solar systems for low-income participants; and offering solar and energy to homeowners while developing energy solutions that are both environmentally and economically sustainable.  Installation of GRID solar rooftops is usually free to the homeowner.

Co-founder Mackie describes the way GRID goes about installing solar panels as a “barn raising” as the process often involves the homeowner, neighbors, volunteers, and job trainees.  GRID has trained more than 4,000 community leaders and green job trainees on the theory and practice of solar installation and offered them hands-on experience.  In March, GRID Alternatives worked with students from the University of Kansas who spent their spring break in the San Francisco Bay Area as embedded journalists.

The 12 students, all enrolled in a new advanced journalism class called Green Reporting, Green Justice, worked for two days with GRID on a solar electric installation on a Habitat for Humanity house.  GRID has teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to make solar power a standard feature on every new Habitat home in the local utility company’s service area.

Since the first Solar Affordable Housing Program in 2004, GRID has helped more than 400 California households throughout Northern and Southern California become users of renewable energy, reducing each family’s electric bills by nearly 75 percent.  The company estimates its installations will save more than $8 million over the lifetime of the equipment, and prevent approximately 38,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Later this month Mackie and Sears will be the recipients of a 2010 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for their creativity and commitment to expanding solar power while providing economic and environmental benefits to low-income communities.

Article by Julie Mitchell appearing courtesy Celsias.

photo: mjmonty

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.