Introduction: Vote Solar’s Annie Carmichael recently sat down with Stan Greschner, Director of the Single-family Affordable Solar Homes Program (SASH) at GRID Alternatives. We learned some surprising facts about who’s going solar in California.
Annie Carmichael, VS: Can you tell us about GRID Alternatives and California’s SASH Program?
Stan Greschner: GRID Alternatives is a non-profit solar installer that exclusively serves low-income families. We currently have seven offices throughout California and are planning to expand to Colorado later this year. GRID uses a volunteer-based installation model that brings together job trainees, community volunteers, and corporate sponsors to support solar adoption in their communities.
In addition to installing solar systems, GRID Alternatives also serves as the statewide Program Administrator for the California Solar Initiative’s Single-family Affordable Solar Homes, or SASH, Program. The scope and scale of the SASH Program truly makes it a “first-in-the-nation” solar program for lower-income families. Launched in 2009, SASH is a rebate program uniquely designed to allow lower-income families to go solar while also supporting broader CSI objectives like energy efficiency, workforce development, and creating a transformative solar market.
Annie Carmichael, VS: How many low-income families have gone solar through SASH?
Stan Greschner: Through March 2012, SASH has received over 2,000 applications form home owners and businesses, which represents 6MW(AC) of generating capacity. The interest from lower-income families to go solar and taking control of their electricity bills continues to explode year after year. In 2009 when SASH began, we received 120 applications; just two years later in 2011, that number was 1140 applications, an order of magnitude larger. No doubt, the upward trajectory will continue in 2012.
Annie Carmichael, VS: Workforce development seems central to GRID’s installation model. Can you tell us how GRID supports local job training efforts?
Stan Greschner: As I mentioned, GRID uses a volunteer-based installation model that gets job trainees and volunteers up on the roof to learn about solar installation. GRID partners with job training programs throughout the state and provides their students with opportunities to gain the required hands-on experience needed to further their careers in solar. These volunteers work and learn under the direct supervision of GRID’s professional installers.
In addition to providing training to people seeking careers in solar, other community members volunteer with GRID to learn about solar technology in a very unique, direct, and tangible way. We have trained over 8,700 community volunteers and job trainees. They gain valuable skills and experience that they can bring back to their homes, businesses and communities, and help build broad-based, grassroots leadership and support for renewable energy. I believe these folks represent tomorrow’s solar adopters, advocates, and workforce.
Annie Carmichael, VS: There’s still a commonly held belief that only wealthy Californians can go solar. What’s your perspective?
Stan Greschner: This is an unfortunate stereotype and general misperception about “today’s” solar adopter…and every time I’ve heard this claim, it has never been supported by any data. GRID Alternatives has thousands of examples where this is NOT the case and I hear from and see other installers throughout California serving a wide-range of customers. Think about it, the solar industry has been expanding year after year and today California has over 2,200 installer companies. We’re not all chasing each other’s taillights through Malibu or Beverly Hills. If that were the case the solar industry would not be expanding at rate that it is. These 2,200 solar companies are putting people to work in their own communities; right in the very neighborhoods they serve.
These are the realities. And if you turn to the data, it supports that fact: the California Solar Initiative’s growth over the past several years has primarily come from lower and middle income zip codes. This growth is reflected both as a number of annual applications and as a percentage of total applications.
Annie Carmichael, VS: So it’s a misconception that solar is only being installed in place like Malibu and Carmel.
Stan Greschner: First, I think it’s important to note that everyone, in all communities throughout California, should continue to be encouraged to go solar…whether it’s Malibu and Carmel or Fresno and Compton. However, it’s not true to say that the more affluent communities are the ONLY ones going solar. In fact, those affluent areas represented only ~10% of residential applications in 2011 and are becoming a smaller and smaller part of the solar adopter market every year. Whereas, CSI applications in lower-income areas have surpassed the higher income areas. It may be surprising to some, but it’s true: these less-affluent communities are California’s real solar growth sector, and they are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the state’s solar market.
Let’s look at Los Angeles as an example. Hawthorne, which has an average household income of $ 58,465, has as much solar capacity per capita as Beverly Hills, with an average household income of $ 168,511, according to Environment California Research & Policy Center’s latest report. Inglewood and Gardena both have more solar than Carmel and they both tie with Anaheim. Furthermore, the growth since 2009 has been quite strong with a tripling of installations and a quadrupling of watts installed.
The Central Valley offers another great example of this trend. Take Fresno County where the average median income is $43k for a household. There has been a 122% growth in applications for the residential portion of the overall CSI program between 2007 and 2011. In Fresno, the SASH Program saw a 330% increase in applications from 2009-2011.
Similar trends are seen in many lower income areas throughout the state and I expect them to continue over the next several years, eventually reaching into all cities and communities, if it hasn’t already.
Annie Carmichael, VS: What’s the background story here? Why are we seeing solar adoption rates rising in lower and middle-income neighborhoods?
Stan Greschner: There are a few positive factors working together. First, the price of solar continues to drop. Surging demand has dropped solar module prices approximately 75% in just the past three years, with another 50% expected over the next three, (Source: Navigant Consulting and other market data). Also, almost all California energy consumers have access to financing options for solar systems such as leasing and power purchase agreements, where there is little to no up-front cost to the energy consumers of installing a solar system. And perhaps most importantly, California has smart solar energy policies in place, like net energy metering, that allow Californians to realize the full benefits of going solar. Net metering ensures that solar customers receive fair credit for any excess electricity they put back on the grid for the utility to sell to other customers. This clean energy credit program is one of the most important policy tools for empowering homes, businesses, schools and public agencies to invest in solar.
It’s perplexing to me, as someone who sees all the direct benefits that solar energy brings to communities across the state, that the state is deciding right now whether to limit access to net metering or to let more Californians participate in this important program. It seems like a pretty clear decision to me.
Vote Solar is a non-profit grassroots organization working to fight climate change and foster economic opportunity by bringing solar energy into the mainstream.