Students Install Solar Panels in Underserved Communities

This past week, a team of twelve UC Berkeley students participated in the annual Solar Spring Break, an alternative spring break program hosted by Grid Alternatives, a non-profit organization based in Oakland, California. Grid Alternatives’ mission is to supply and install solar panels in apartments and homes of underserved communities at no extra cost to the residents. This not only reduces the need for fossil fuels, but also helps alleviate the high costs of electricity bills.

Coming from all different majors, the student volunteers decided to participate in Solar Spring Break for reasons ranging from a passion for environmental justice to a desire to gain technical experience. Dennis Chiu, a first year civil and environmental engineering major, said that he got involved to “learn skills that will help [him] participate in the solar industry, help people in underrepresented communities, and have a good time.”

The Solar Spring Break team began their fundraising efforts to support the program months ago and reached far and wide to successfully raise more than $5,000. Team leader, Echo Sun described the fundraising process as definitely “challenging,” and remarked that “collaboration between team members [was] the most important thing.”

On the first day of Solar Spring Break, the team toured the Grid Alternatives office and warehouse and got a firsthand introduction to the solar industry. They received presentations on safety measures, proper installation techniques, and other important aspects of the field. Tim Sears, the founder of Grid Alternatives, joined the team for lunch and discussed the importance of providing cheap renewable energy to low-income families.

The following day, the team traveled to the South Bay to visit Green Charge and NEXTracker, two emerging companies in the sustainable energy field. The students had the opportunity to talk to industry professionals about the future of energy storage as well as about new innovations in solar technology around the world.

On Wednesday and Thursday of that week, the team began the installation process and strapped themselves into harnesses to install solar photovoltaic systems on roofs. This year, the team worked in the Richmond Housing Authority’s Triangle Court Family Housing community, a neighborhood of 98 individual subsidized apartments located at the intersection of several railroads. From the top of the roofs, the team members could see the refineries and giant barrels of oil, a reflection of the world’s current energy situation.

On Friday, the team gathered together to learn more about government policies and the science behind photovoltaic energy, as well as reflect on the events of the week. The last day of Solar Spring Break ended with a company barbecue to celebrate the completion of the Richmond Triangle Court solar installation project. While the Solar Spring Break team only installed panels on four of the 98 houses, the total project is estimated to save $1.8 million in energy costs for the families throughout the lifetime of the panels.

What makes this project different from many of Grid Alternatives’ typical projects is that it focused on multifamily housing. Up until recently,GRID was only able to provide funding for single-family homes and homeowners. This excluded all renters and people in apartments, even though these are often the people who need the most help financially. Since the introduction of some private philanthropic and additional government funding, Grid Alternatives has been able to do more work with multifamily housing communities. California is at the forefront of solar technology and policy which is why it is important to continue setting a high standard for other states and the rest of the world.

Grid Alternatives’ mission is important because it is inclusive of everyone, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, in the transition towards a sustainable future. While the price of solar panel manufacturing is decreasing, photovoltaics are still unaffordable for many families. By providing solar to low-income households, Grid Alternatives helps reduce electricity bills and greenhouse gas emissions. Alexandra Cisneros Carey, a student in this year’s Solar Spring Break, talks about how “electricity is a big cost” for some of her family members to the point that “they’ll go without air conditioning in the Central Valley.” She appreciates Grid’s work because it provides “solutions to people who wouldn’t normally be a part of the renewable sector.” An important aspect of environmental justice is making sure that everyone has access to a sustainable lifestyle while helping communities that are most affected by environmental issues.

Solar Spring Break is one of Grid Alternatives’ many initiatives aimed at getting younger people involved in the solar industry. According to Grid Alternatives employee, Daisy Meyer, “people coming out of college are the next generation of the renewable energy workforce.” Some of Grid Alternatives’ other initiatives include Solar Futures for high schoolers and SolarCorps for college graduates. “Exposing as many college students and high school students as possible to the work that we do will be able to make our work expand further than we alone could make it,” says Meyer. Grid Alternatives also works to increase employment and create jobs in the solar industry by providing training for people who need it.

Overall, the students gained a lot from the experience, learning about the technical, political, and social aspects of the solar industry. Most importantly, by dedicating their spring break to a great cause, they helped prevent 142 tons of carbon emissions, all while having fun.


Bianca Champenois

Bianca is a second year mechanical engineering major who is passionate about energy and sustainability.

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