Low-Income Houses Go Solar, Put People to Work

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Story and photos by Kathleen Haley
September 13, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO — Fleurette Sevin spent part of her weekend on a rooftop in San Francisco. But Sevin wasn’t there to admire the view of the San Francisco Bay. Rather, she was among roughly 200 volunteers and job trainees who installed solar panels on homes as part of a September 10 Solarthon event.

“It’s fun working with other women, and it’s really empowering,” Sevin says.

The event, held in the low-income Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco, was organized by GRID Alternatives, an Oakland-based nonprofit group that sets up solar energy systems.

Sevin was a member of an all-women’s group that readied a home for solar energy. The all-women’s team did the same kind of heavy lifting that the other 12 groups did throughout the day: They scaled ladders and lifted and installed solar panels.

Christin Eales, GRID Alternatives construction manager for the Bay Area, was in charge of Sevin’s group. Eales noted that all-female teams help women gain construction skills without interference from men.

“It’s really important for women to be in a group of people where we can facilitate learning among each other,” Eales says.

The event drew more than 200 volunteers and job trainees, who set up solar power for 13 homes, according to GRID Alternatives development officer Maura McKnight.

The volunteer ranks included individuals as well as members of companies such as Google, Wells Fargo and Salesforce.

Erica Mackie, executive director and co-founder of GRID Alternatives, says the message of solar jobs is a key goal of the Solarthon.

“I think what GRID Alternatives is trying to do is bring together the entire community: volunteers, corporations, the homeowners themselves, to show that solar is a technology that can benefit everyone … It can give jobs to people who need jobs.”

Volunteers had a variety of reasons for spending their Saturday in garages and on top of roofs. Sevin, and Charles Hanna, a volunteer from Santa Cruz, both say they are interested in pursuing careers in the solar industry.

Meanwhile, Sam Stearns, a volunteer from Oakland, says he wants to bring solar installation skills to Peru next year. He says he’ll be constructing a medical facility in that country, and he wants it to run on solar energy.

At the Solarthon, Stearns was interested in electrical work. “I want to learn more about just how the electricity links up to the system (and) to the house,” he says. “It’s pretty complicated.”

The work of the volunteers pleased Cynthia Lewis, the owner of the home on which the all-female group installed solar panels. She will not have to pay the costs of the energy system’s installation.

“I know it’s going to bring my electricity bill down,” Lewis adds.

The volunteers and job trainees finished work on all 13 solar energy systems on the day of the Solarthon, says Lara Edge, GRID Alternatives communications manager. Edge says a few more steps remain: a city inspector and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) will review the volunteers’ work. If the reviews go well, the solar power systems will be activated by PG&E. Then Lewis and the members of the other 12 households will be able to benefit from the power of the sun.

GRID Alternatives is holding four more upcoming Solarthon events in various parts of California. Information about volunteering can be found on the organization’s homepage.


Kathleen Haley is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.

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