For some of the country’s most financially vulnerable families, a high utility bill can mean choosing between such things as putting food on the table, or paying to keep the lights on and enough heat flowing to endure cold winter months.
“Utility costs are often the biggest home expenditure for low-income families after their mortgage,” said Erica Mackie, CEO of Grid Alternatives, the largest nonprofit solar installer in the United States. The Oakland, Calif.-based organization installs solar in low-income communities using a professionally guided workforce consisting of volunteers and those receiving job training.
Mackie has experienced repeatedly how savings from solar can be life-changing for people. For example, she tells the story of Elmer Rankin, an elderly, disabled Navy veteran who lived in Sun City, Calif.
Before Grid Alternatives put solar on Rankin’s home in December of 2010, “he was struggling to pay his medical bills and his utility costs,” Mackie said. Rankin used an electric wheelchair and an in-home oxygen system. Mackie also said he needed a climate-controlled environment throughout the year due to his medical conditions. The solar system Grid Alternatives put on his home covered up to 80 percent of his electricity needs.
Although Rankin has since passed away, the money he saved during the last years of his life through solar freed up much-needed cash from his fixed income, and gave him the ability to change the temperature in his home and use his medical equipment when needed.
Grid Alternatives was co-founded by Mackie, along with Tim Sears, in 2001. The two were both engineering professionals implementing large-scale renewable energy projects in the private sector when they started the nonprofit.
Today, Grid Alternatives has more than 150 employees and 10 offices serving all of California, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and tribal communities nationwide.
Last year, the organization expanded internationally through its acquisition of Power to the People, a U.S.-based nonprofit that installs off-grid solar systems in Nicaragua’s rural regions.
Grid Alternatives also saw a boon to its efforts to train a diverse workforce last year when solar manufacturing giant SunEdison announced it was giving the nonprofit $1.2 million to provide women hands-on training, mentorships, fellowships, leadership-building events and networking opportunities.
To date, more than 4,900 families are benefiting from the more than 14,578 kilowatts of solar power capacity installed by Grid Alternatives through 4,945 solar systems, according to the nonprofit.
SolarEnergy.net spoke with Mackie about the state of low-income solar policy in the U.S. and how to create equal access to solar and jobs in one of the nation’s fastest growing industries.
Grid Alternatives opened a Washington D.C. office in September. Was the move a signal that the organization is getting more involved in policy?
I don’t think it signals that anything about our organization has changed. The reality is we are expanding nationally. We opened the office to serve families and job trainees in the Mid-Atlantic region. The market is growing there. There is a real opportunity there to train up communities to get jobs in solar, and there are a lot of families that could benefit from lower bills and access to clean power in the region.
But we also wanted to make sure we had examples of our great work close to folks who make policy decisions. We are thinking about policy at a national level. We want to have a showcase of our work near the nation’s capital to really be able to call for a low-income solar policy across the country. We want to make sure people making solar policy ask the question, “How are these policies going to benefit low-income families?”
What are the biggest barriers to getting solar on the roof of more low-income homes in the U.S.?
There is an element of education. In general, the families we serve by and large do not think of themselves as solar adopters. They have heard the message that solar is only for rich folks. They want to have access, often for both environmental and economic reasons. But they don’t really see themselves as solar consumers until their cousin; or someone down the street; or somebody at their church, or mosque, or synagogue gets solar. It shows them that solar is for people like us too.
Then there is certainly a policy component. California and New York are examples of states that are really thinking through an equity lens as they create solar policy. Both states are building a solar economy and have low-income components in their solar policy, which is incredibly helpful. By and large, it has been states and cities that have been leading the charge when it comes to adopting low-income solar policies. But we would really like to see the federal government lead as well.
Grid Alternatives’ work includes educating women and minorities about the solar industry and how to install solar. Why do you think the industry has been lacking ethnic and gender diversity in its ranks?
Why we are where we are as an industry is primarily a result of barreling forward. Solar has been a startup industry, focused on growing as quickly as possible. The industry’s workforce has grown 20 percent year over year in the last several years.
Now, there is an opportunity for the industry to do things differently, and create a workforce that is representative of the consumer base you want to serve, and of the communities in which we live. Now, there is an opportunity for the industry to step back and say, “How are we really going to employ a diverse workforce that can then grow business?”
There have been tons of statistics that show when you have people of color, when you have veterans, when you have women around the table, you create a team environment that can grow a stronger business. We’re doing our part to help provide the industry with a pipeline of trained people, and we want to make sure that pipeline is as inclusive and diverse as possible.
What’s next for Grid Alternatives? How do you see the organization changing over the next five to 10 years?
We believe we need a transition to clean power, and it’s imperative that this is done in a way that includes everyone. For us, that means continuing to expand nationally throughout the country, with a goal of being able to serve families in rural America, urban America and on reservations. And that includes providing equal access to training for folks who want to get jobs in cleantech.
As we grow, that means making sure we have a solar solution that works for everyone. So a solution for homeowners, of which there are millions that really need our services. But also for renters, of whom there are millions more. We have been dipping our toes into solar on multi-family housing. We’re doing some community solar, what’s called shared solar, in Colorado. Being able to have a technology solution that is able to serve everyone and a scope of services regionally that’s able to service everyone is our long-term goal.