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Grid Alternatives Solarthon 2010 – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

On Saturday July 31st, the Residential Solar 101 team joined about 150 other volunteers for Grid Alternatives’ Solarthon 2010.  In the eight hours we were there, the teams worked to install solar panels on nine different houses in West Oakland. On average, each system was 2 kW in size. A total of 18 Kilowatts (kW) of solar generating capacity was installed on the nine houses. As a result of the installations, these nine households will collectively save an estimated $180,000 over the next 20 years!  If that’s not a great way to have an impact on a community, I don’t know what is.

Grid Alternatives is a non-profit organization that was started four years ago with a mission to install solar panels on low-income housing.  In their first year, Grid Alternatives completed just two installations. Since then they have expanded significantly, and four years down the road they just reached 500 installations.  A typical Grid Alternatives installation is 2kW, which means that as of July 2010 they have installed 1 Megawatt of solar power. Most importantly, this solar power is distributed throughout low-income housing developments across California. That’s a whole lot of solar energy!

Instead of just giving money to low-income families, Grid Alternatives installs solar power systems, which really are the gift that keeps on giving.  Day in and day out these solar panels will produce clean, renewable energy, which not only reduces the homeowners monthly electric bill (for the next 20-30 years), but also reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to helping the homeowners, Grid Alternatives provides an easy way for volunteers to gain experience installing solar. In some cases, volunteers have gone on to pursue careers as solar installers.

This was my third Grid Alternatives solar installation and I was more impressed than ever.  (My first was the Grid Alternatives Solarthon 2009).  The day started with a detailed safety talk before breaking up into our respective teams and heading off to start installing.  Each team had a team supervisor who worked for Grid Alternatives and two leaders (one for the roof and one for the ground) who either worked in the industry or had done a number of installations and had been through a leader training.  This year Residential Solar 101 joined the team – a great group of people interested in all things clean-tech.

The Clean Techies team installed a 2.7 kilowatt system consisting of twelve 230 watt ET Solar panels and a 2500 watt PV Powered grid-tied inverter.  Normally a system of this size would cost around $20,000 before solar rebates & incentives and about $12,000 after.  This family will get the system for free thanks to government incentives and the generosity of Grid Alternatives and their volunteers.  In return, the family will be required to take steps improve their home’s energy efficiency.

Volunteering for Grid Alternatives is a hands-on experience.  Normally, volunteers on a Grid Alternatives installation will be responsible for installing every part of the home solar power system, except any wiring in the circuit panel box (Only the Grid Alternatives employees (professional installers) do that for safety reasons). This work will take a team two days to complete. However, because the Solarthon is a one day event, some of the preparation had been done in the weeks prior. This included routing the conduit for the wires, and installing the rails (frame) on the roof.

Here’s a list of the tasks we completed:

  • Mounted, hanged, and hooked up the inverter
  • Prepped the frame on the roof

  • Mounted & connected the solar panels on the roof

  • Ran the wires from the roof to the inverter
  • The the professionals finished up the final hook-up from the inverter to the circuit panel box.

Would I do it again?  Absolutely.  As I said, this is my third Grid Alternatives installation and I’ll definitely be back for more.  As the saying goes, give a man a fish and he’ll have dinner for one night.  Teach him to fish and he’ll have dinner for the rest of his life.  I think the same thing goes with energy.  Giving these families money to pay their energy bill is a one time fix.  Installing solar panels to supply them with free, clean energy for the next 30+ years is a smart long-term solution.

Have any Question or Comment?

3 comments on “Grid Alternatives Solarthon 2010 – The Gift That Keeps On Giving


Do you know of similar volunteer opportunities in the New York area?


Hi Elena,

Do you know the SolarOne organization? They might be able to give you some pointers on similar volunteer opportunities to do solar installation.

Please leave a comment below if you know of other organizations and events. Thank you!



Hi Elena,

I’d suggest sending an email to Grid Alternatives to see who the recommend on the east coast. They may know of a similar organization out there. Good luck!


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