It was one of those only-in-California moments. A residential cul-de-sac in San Jacinto – which is about 45 or so minutes out of Palm Springs, down Interstate 10 West and then a wildride on CA-79S, a swooping mountain highway — and the street is filled with people in jeans, T-shirts and hard hats, swarming up on roofs of the houses to install solar panels.
It was the GRID Alternatives 2012 Solarthon on May 19, when dozens of volunteers gathered on Karlie Ann Court to install solar panels on eight homes, all in one day. Based in Oakland, GRID is a nonprofit founded by two engineering professionals, Erica Mackie and Tim Sears, who believe you shouldn’t have to be rich to be able to afford solar panels on your roof.
GRID is the main contractor for California’s Single-family Affordable Solar Homes program, known as SASH, which is part of the California Solar Intiative. SASH is targeted at helping low-income families go solar, by paying 60 percent to 100 percent of the cost of an installation. To qualify for the program, people must fit the federal definitions for low-income families.
This was a sore point for Shirl Papaian, a San Jacinto resident bicycling down the street, who questioned whether the homeowners there are truly low-income people.
“Anybody who can afford to buy homes like these aren’t in need,” she said. “It’s an outrage.”
But Mackie defended the project, saying the neighborhood had been built by the city for first-time, low-income homebuyers.
“A lot of people think homeowners can’t be low income,” she said, noting that statewide about 1.5 million homeowners qualify as low income.
The homeowners who qualify for GRID installations also have to have a home energy audit and enroll in state or federal programs promoting energy efficiency home upgrades, she said.
To date Mackie and Sears have helped put solar panels on more than 1,750 homes, cutting low-income families electric bills by an average of 75 percent. GRID Alternative estimates its installations will keep about 151,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the air over the next 30 years.
The group has a lot of supporters in the Coachella Valley, many of whom made the trip to San Jacinto for the Solarthon. Desert volunteers ranged from a crew of solar trainees from College of the Desert’s solar training program to George Puddephatt, a solar job specialist with Riverside County Workforce Development in Indio, who usually is on the one helping COD program graduates find jobs, not climbing up on roofs to install panels. Hot Purple Energy, the ubiquitous Palm Springs solar installer, had an information table as did SunUp Energy.
Per usual, the folks from COD were a cross-section of the valley’s unemployed. Leo Adamski, 58, from Calimesa has been a carpenter for 38 years, but as he said, “There’s not a lot of framing going on.”
Adamski was there for the hands-on training opportunity, after the first three weeks of his nine-week course at COD.
“Now that we’ve gotten through some of the school, it’s a plus to see the panels bolted to the racks.”
Pamela Becker, 54, of Palm Springs was in coporate information technology and also did some real estate investment — before the recession. Now she’s on the brink of losing her house and is hoping the solar training at COD will get her off unemployment and back on her feet financially. She said the hands-on training at COD is “exceptional.”
Joe Dolan, who previously worked with the solar program at COD, but now is at PetersenDean, a roofing and solar firm, was there to help and do some recruiting for the Riverside office he’s setting up, he said, over the barbecue lunch — burgers and salads and all kinds of yummy desserts — put on for the volunteers.
During lunch I also caught up with Dianne Randle, one of the homeowenrs on Karlie Ann Court who now has solar panels on her roof. Randle, a hospice nurse, said she’s looking forward to cutting down her monthly electric bills, which run around $150 (yes, relatively low by desert standards, but high for Randle who has a 15-year-old who, like many teens, doesn’t remember to turn off lights or computers).
Randle’s installation was also special because it was done by a team of women volunteers, Women’s Build, led by Anna Bautista, a diminutive woman from Los Angeles.
Solar and renewable energy in general is still heavily male, so I asked her if it was hard for women to break into the field.
“It might be intimidating,” Bautista said. “They’re just as capable.”
Mary Eike, another LA volunteer, was just bubbling. Getting up on a roof to install panels, wires and all is a kick, she said.
“I’ve always been interested in solar,” she said. “I love doing this.”
Another valley contingent came from the green academy at Desert Mirage High School in Thermal. The students didn’t get up on the roofs, but they were all impressed with GRID Alternatives.
Their teacher, Arthur Kimball, seems to be on a one-man mission to expose the kids to all the job opportunities in green tech.
“The green academy is new; it’s cool to see all this,” said Marina Barragan, 17, of Oasis.
Joe Rodriguez, 16 another student, said, “It’s inspirational for our community.”