Reflecting on Solar Spring Break

Written By: Jesica Sutandi and Cindy Asano

This past spring break, 23 students from various majors were selected to participate in Solar Spring Break (SSB), a partnership between UC Berkeley’s Student Environmental Resource Center (SERC) and Grid Alternatives (GRID). GRID is a nonprofit solar organization that seeks to bring renewable energy to low-income homeowners, while also providing solar education to volunteers. UC Berkeley SSB teams are traditionally sent out to Oakland neighborhoods, but for the first time this year, a team was also sent to the Salinas Valley. Also known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” the valley is known for its $9 billion agriculture industry that mostly grows lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, and spinach for much of the U.S. The demographic makeup in this region is predominantly Latinx, and the median home income is slightly below the U.S. average. Most families are employed within the agriculture industry.

Our housing during our stay in Salinas was provided by the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a nonprofit, organic farm that educates and subsidizes farming equipment for small-scale farmers entering the farming industry. ALBA allowed us to better understand the communities we were working with by educating us on the agricultural industry and exposing us to the environmental justice issues affecting Salinas communities. Thus, this trip was an opportunity to learn about the agricultural as well as the solar industry.

The Salinas team had the opportunity to install solar panels on two different homes, so our group split up on two of the five days that were dedicated to solar installs. Our team worked with Francisco, a single father who lives with his daughter Lexie. Lexie was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that necessitates 24-hour care, and Francisco now works full-time as her caretaker. Her medical equipment demands greater electricity consumption which entails higher financial costs. They were able to successfully qualify for a free solar installation through GRID Alternatives by fulfilling all three of GRID’s qualification criteria: 1. Own and live in the home, 2. Have a solar-appropriate roof, 3. Meet the income requirements. GRID’s income requirements are based on the number of individuals living in each household and the Area Median Income (AMI). A family of four, for example, would have to be making below $65,100 to qualify.

Before our scheduled solar installation days, we were able to go on a solar site survey to understand the planning process behind a solar installation. This is the first of three primary steps behind an installation, before the designing process and the installation itself. During the site survey, we measured the roof dimensions, and took notes on any obstructions that had the potential to affect the solar irradiance such as vents or chimneys. We noted the roof’s tilt, or its steepness, and the azimuth, which is the direction the roof is facing, which are both factors fundamental to solar production. We were also required to comply with the city’s fire department requirements; based on different cities (in this case, Soledad, where the two houses we installed panels were located), panels could not be installed within a 3 feet distance from any obstructions, the ridge of the roof, or the side of the roof for safety reasons. These factors were also taken into consideration during the planning process. All of this information would serve as the fundamental outline used to determine the optimal placement of solar panels and would be used to calculate the efficiency of the system.

Our team, under the guidance of the GRID mentors, installed a 2.6 kW-DC system for Francisco and Lexie, which would cover approximately 85-95% of their electricity bill. The Salinas team altogether installed a 5.32 kW system for Francisco and his father’s house. This 10-panel system would save Francisco and Lexie $26,649 over the system’s 20-year lifetime, and offset 54.77 tons of carbon, the equivalent of planting 1,274 trees! The power generated in the modules would be in direct current (DC), and the microinverters attached on every solar module would convert the DC to alternating current (AC). AC is commonly used in home appliances because it is attached to the power grid where the current regularly reverses direction. We used monocrystalline modules, which captured 17% of the energy from the sun. This level of energy efficiency is standard in the solar industry today, with the best in the market being SunPower’s X22, which has a 22.8% efficiency.

However, our engagement with the local community did not end with Francisco and Lexie; we also had the opportunity to speak to several farmers, one of them named Misael. Misael is currently growing crops on 2 acres of land in ALBA. He spoke to us about how organic farming is far more beneficial to the environment and to our health. He shared with us his experience working on a conventional farm a few years ago. “Going back home from work, I was told not to touch my kids because of the residue from the pesticides. I couldn’t even hug my kids.” He said that the pesticides were so dangerous that the workers could not come in contact with the crops until three days later. Working on an organic farm however, his children could come and help him pick crops, and they were always equipped with nutritious food. We worked for 1.5 hours, helping him pull out the yellowed or mildewed leaves, and derooting the unwanted weeds that would take up the nutrients from the soil. We complained of backache, stinging nettles, and the heat; however, the farmers regularly engaged in such work from 4 a.m. until sundown.

Overall, this trip provided us a unique opportunity to hear people’s stories first-hand. It was empowering to see how GRID has helped bring renewable energy to low-income families, while supporting the environment. Though it was challenging to hear the stories of farmworkers such as Misael who are disproportionately affected by toxic pesticides, this trip  gave us an opportunity to engage with communities who are directly affected by environmental injustices. Environmental justice and environmental degradation are two issues with no easy solution; however, through GRID and ALBA’s work in installing solar panels, promoting organic farming, supporting small scale businesses, educating people on the two fields and increasing job prospects, it is clear a solution can be found in many different avenues.

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