GRID Alternatives: The ‘Habitat for Humanity’ of the Solar Industry

Part two of our GRID Alternatives series focuses on the people behind the mission: the organization’s 4,000 or so volunteers who have gainedreal-life training while helping complete solar energy installations inlow-income communities across California. It is this symbioticrelationship — between the organization and its volunteers — that eachyear lures hundreds of individuals to the call of the organization’smission.

At core, GRID Alternatives exists to help under-served California families save money on monthly electricitybills. But, along the way, the group’s volunteers learn valuable skillswhile helping GRID carry out its mission.
That’s okay with GRID Alternatives, saysthe organization’s Development Director, Zach Franklin. “If people learn a lot from us and decide to pursue a career within the solar energyindustry, that’s great. But we exist primarily to install solar energysystems for low-income families,” Franklin said.

All volunteers have the opportunity to help install entire solarenergy systems. GRID Alternatives gradually works volunteers up to thatstage, allowing them to first help with small stages of theinstallation, like panel passing or just observing the wiring of thesystem. There is no timetable for when a volunteer can get fullyinvolved in the installation. Whenever you feel ready, you’re on.

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The experience of Marc Fontana, who began volunteering with GRID inApril of 2006, illustrates well how volunteers help the organization,and vice versa.

Within months of losing his job, the San Francisco Bay Area nativewent through a GRID Alternatives training course and was soon working on his first volunteer assignment in northern California’s East Bay. Since then, he has dedicated himself to learning about the solar industry and helping GRID Alternatives install solar energy systems.

“A co-worker and I both lost our jobs, and we were both interested in solar and renewable energy,” he said. At the outset, Fontana hadminimal experience with solar energy, but was interested in GRIDAlternatives because he felt the organization gave him the best chanceto learn how to install.

“I heard volunteers get to do installations from start to finish.There is no substitute for hands on,” he said. To date, Fontana hasvolunteered at GRID Alternative sites in Antioch, Greenfield,Castroville, Oakland and San Francisco and is one of GRID’s longeststanding volunteers.

Beyond volunteering an average of four days a week, Fontana hasearned certification from the North American Board of Solar EnergyPractitioners (NABCEP), a leadingindustry certification-granting entity. His interest in solar evenextends to his personal life: He now has a solar energy system on hishouse. Above all else, Fontana has gained an appreciation for thehands-on approach taken by GRID Alternatives.

“I recommend GRID to anyone interested in working in the fieldbecause it’s one of the few opportunities to work hands-on,” he said.

If volunteer interest is an indication, GRID’s approach seems to beworking. Mike Faulk, who has worked with GRID since 2008, remembers atime when volunteers could get on-site just days after signing up on GRID Alternatives’ website. Now, however, there’s amonths-long waiting list.

“It’s harder to volunteer now, but I continue to work with thembecause it’s for a good cause,” said Faulk, who has been a part of over20 GRID Alternatives installations over the years and has earned therole of team leader. “It’s the Habitat for Humanity of the solarindustry.”

Anyone can sign up for GRID’s email list, which provides informationabout upcoming volunteer opportunities. Applicants must complete a formand be able to commit themselves to one or two, six-hour work days aweek.

After signing up, volunteers are required to attend a brieforientation about safety and what to expect on the job site. Once on the job site, individuals have the opportunity to learn from fromsupervisors — who are professionally trained and certified solarinstallers — as well as from volunteer team leaders, like Marc Fontana.

Considerations about self-improvement job skills aside, it’s evidentthat all GRID volunteers believe deeply in the GRID mission — and areexcited to be helping a worth cause.

“When you’re out there, you know you’re helping communities in needand fighting environmental injustice,” said Fontana. “Neighbors alwayscome out to see what’s going on. If it wasn’t for programs like this,some people would never get or even know about solar power.”

In case you missed it, check out the first installment of our Grid Alternatives series.

Image: Volunteers install solar panels atop a Habitat for Humanityhousing project in Oakland, CA on June 8, 2010. A typical GRIDinstallation takes 10-15 volunteers to complete.

The ‘Habitat for Humanity’ of the Solar Industry


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