'Perfect moment' as volunteers install solar in low-income neighborhood

Correction appended.

How many hard hats does it take to switch on solar power in a distressed Washington, D.C., neighborhood?

Try 150. That's how many workers installed solar panels on 10 Habitat for Humanity-built houses in northeast Washington's Ivy City neighborhood on a sunny fall morning as the nonprofit GRID Alternatives marked the grand opening of its D.C. office.

GRID Alternatives -- whose mission is bringing solar panels and jobs to low-income families -- is expanding beyond California to Colorado, the New York tri-state area and now D.C. thanks to a five-year, $2 million grant from Wells Fargo; equipment donations from SunEdison LLC, SunPower Corp. and Enphase Energy Inc.; and a lot of volunteer labor.

Among the hard hats in Ivy City were 10 young "solar trainees" from a work skills training program at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a D.C. support group for at-risk children. After a week of rooftop labor, the young volunteers shouted in mock protest as the project wound down. "No!" they shouted. "Not over! Not good!"

GRID Alternatives is on the leading edge of a movement to provide clean power and green jobs to low-income communities that tend to be most vulnerable to pollution, power outages and rising energy prices (Greenwire, July 3).

The group provides not just solar energy but solar jobs for low-income people -- or anyone who wants to find a foothold in the industry, including women, another underrepresented group in the field. GRID Alternatives' mostly volunteer workforce provides an opportunity for people to train for certification in solar installation, including an average of 160 hours of hands-on experience for volunteers, according to the group. It partners with more than 70 job training organizations nationwide.

Joshua Hamilton, a Sasha Bruce trainee, had a hand in every part of putting up a solar panel during the week in Ivy City and is now interested in learning more installation skills. He said he would show his friends the solar panels next time they were on a drive from their homes in southwest Washington.

"I am going to miss it," Hamilton said. "I don't want it to end. This is a perfect moment."

Two volunteers -- Kendra Sanford and LaTon Davis -- joined the installation after walking by the project earlier in the week. Both said they wanted to continue working with GRID Alternatives on future projects.

Sanford, who has two children and is unemployed because of medical issues, said she hadn't really known much about solar before but now was quite interested in the business. She smiled with quiet pride when pointing to the railings she assembled to mount the solar panels on the roof.

Skilled solar installers are needed in the fast-growing industry. Labor is one of solar's "soft costs," which now account for about 60 percent of solar rooftop energy prices, keeping generation more expensive than traditional energy.

The Department of Energy has recently increased its attention on tackling solar's soft costs, which also include marketing and financing, as part of its SunShot Grand Challenge that aims to lower the cost of solar energy to about $1.25 to $1.50 per watt by 2020 (E&ENews PM, May 20).


Beyond bringing families energy savings and training, the volunteer solar installation projects bring a diverse set of people to work together in an atmosphere that is a mixture of a construction zone, summer camp and street festival.

In addition to the Sasha Bruce trainees, the last day's work in Ivy City had volunteers from the Solar Energy Industries Association, Solar Electric Power Association, D.C.'s District Department of the Environment, Exelon Corp. and the Clean Energy Leadership Institute.

They crowded around GRID Alternative staff, eyeing the power saws, torque wrenches and utility knives anxiously. Many conceded that despite working with solar policy and numbers daily, they never have actually handled photovoltaic panels or wired up metal railings, let alone spent much time on roofs.

But almost all of them raised their hands when asked whether they wanted to go on the roof to do the actual panel installment.

'Like an open book'

Rooftop work entailed carrying a 50-pound solar panel on a roof with a 25-degree incline, two stories above the ground, while remembering to step lightly on the black roof shingles to avoid damaging the roof.

Each volunteer wore a thick rope hooked to a yellow harness that snaked around volunteers' shoulders, torso and thighs -- shock pack included to cushion any fall. The rope was attached to a red horizontal lifeline bolted to the rooftop, which provided safety but often resulted in the five lines hooked onto it becoming entangled. Disentanglement required performing a modified version of the team-bonding "human knot game"-- a delicate dance on the roof of twisting, turning, crouching, and stepping in and out of ropes to free the line.

But the most common injuries on volunteer rooftop installations are sunburns and dehydration, GRID Alternatives staff said.

Frequent reminders to put on sunscreen and to drink water echoed around the five-house solar installation, mingled with cheers of encouragement, calls for copper wire and other tools, and occasionally a shout of "Headache!" to warn of objects falling off the roof or scaffolding. More often than not, the Sasha Bruce trainees were offering advice and encouragement to the newbie volunteers about how to hold the solar panels or remind them to wear gloves to avoid rope burn.

The day before, another group of volunteers had measured, cut and screwed into the roofs 10-foot railings for the racking system that would hold the panels and micro-inverters -- small metal boxes that convert the direct current of solar energy into alternating current used by homeowners' appliances. GRID Alternatives' solar experts previously measured and designed the roof layout so volunteers could implement the build plan under the guidance of experienced team leaders.

After getting their roof legs, teams quickly set about tightening the lugs on micro-inverter boxes and clipping in the electrical wiring bound together in a black rubber casing that looped around the whole system and connects all of the inverters. The micro-inverter system runs similar to modern Christmas lights, so if one box is shaded or stops working, the others can continue to run. This also enables quick troubleshooting, which GRID Alternatives guarantees for its projects up to 10 years.

Hauling the panels up the two stories to the roof involved the high-tech system of thin nylon ropes clipped on the panel and a set of four people hauling them up, fist over fist, with two people down below walking backward to keep the bottom pulled outward so the panel didn't hit against the scaffolding. The panels face solar-panel-side toward the house, as that is the toughest side of the panel -- manufactured to withstand the elements and a bit of banging from sticks, birds and unsteady volunteer hands.

One participant compared the process to relying on "dental floss" to maneuver the very expensive panels. On projects with only single-story houses, the panels are just lifted up by hand, in a great workout for the core, biceps and shoulders, a GRID Alternative staff member said.

Once it was on the roof, two people carefully carried the 39-inch-by-65-inch panel over the ridge of the roof to the racking system. The panel was placed down on one side, "like an open book," and another volunteer plugged the panel into the system, excess wire carefully tied down and hidden with zip ties. The panel was laid down completely flat -- 50 percent of the panel between the two railings with 25 percent on the top and 25 percent hanging off the bottom -- and then quickly tightened into place with a torque wrench.

'We love power tools!'

"This is sexy-looking, ladies," said Ilana Feingold, a SolarCorps construction fellow doing a one-year stint with GRID Alternatives' Los Angeles branch, pointing to a set of mounted solar panels. "Women's build, what!"

She and several of the other women on the GRID Alternatives technical staff are a key part of "women's builds" for the group's National Women in Solar Initiative, to bring more women into the solar industry and support them in their professional advancement.

"We love power tools!" Feingold and the other women-build leads exclaimed to their team earlier in the day.

GRID Alternatives has hosted a series of all-women installation teams over the past year -- one of those occurred earlier in the week and included Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association, and Erica Mackie, CEO of GRID Alternatives.

Members of DOE's SunShot initiative staff also joined an earlier installation, and the White House sent U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, White House Council on Environmental Quality acting Chairman Mike Boots, and White House energy and climate adviser Dan Utech to announce several solar and efficiency actions at the site of the solar installations Sept. 18 (Greenwire, Sept. 18).

President Obama also laid out a goal of 100 megawatts of renewable energy installed on site at federally subsidized housing by 2020 earlier this year, a target that GRID Alternatives and other organizations are also lending their experience to DOE and HUD to help meet.

Melisa "Pudgee" Napolitano, a GRID Alternatives construction assistant who came down from the New York office, said she loved working with all the volunteers. The GRID Alternatives technical staff and the equipment for the D.C. project were trucked over from New York or came from California, as the Mid-Atlantic office still hasn't been fully staffed.

The job provides important health and retirement benefits -- unusual for the positions she previously had, Napolitano said -- but most of all, it provides that satisfaction of helping people connect and learn.

Napolitano learned her skills through the Nontraditional Employment for Women training center in New York, previously working in odds-and-ends jobs at hotels, laying tile and customer service. After receiving her training, she had been applying reflective material on roofs as part of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Cool Roofs initiative, similarly experiencing work in a community atmosphere that she found addictive.

She said she was very lucky that the GRID Alternatives opportunity came along just after the Cool Roofs project ended.

"It is so emotionally rewarding," she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story included an imprecise incline angle for a roof and a participant in the women's build team who didn't join because of injury.

Twitter: @lingkate6

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines