GRID Alternatives was founded during the 2001 California energy crisis by two engineering professionals working specifically with Solar Energy. They were implementing large-scale renewable energy and energy efficiency projects but they changed their focus. Originally designing large systems for private homes and businesses, they saw there was a much greater need. These engineers realized that everyone should have access to solar energy, not just those more fortunate or private corporations.
That being the case, a model to make solar PV technology practical and accessible for low-income communities that need the savings and jobs the most, but have the least access, was created. The vision behind the development was very simple: free, clean electricity from the sun should be available to everyone, everywhere. So, GRID Alternatives’ vision was to transition to clean, renewable energy for everyone. Their mission was to make technology and training of renewable energy available to underserved communities.
GRID Alternatives is a non-profit. While they are small in comparison to large solar companies, their impact in lower income communities in huge. Servicing different areas of the US (10 offices), and Nicaragua, GRID Alternatives is on track to accomplish an average of 4 solar installations per day in 2016. According to one of the founders, “We’ve started at the bottom of the pyramid and are pushing up” in the area of solar energy.
So what does all this have to do with Spring Break – thousands of your closest friends – sunny beaches – sunburn, etc.? GRID Alternatives offers college students the opportunity to help others by installing solar in lower income homes. Most of the students are interested in renewable energy as a career – what better way to get first-hand experience and knowledge while helping others. In 2015, ten students from the University of North Carolina (so happens to be my Alma Mater – go Heels) spent a week in Los Angeles. The students spent two days installing a 2.2 KW system for a family in Long Beach. The system is estimated to produce more than 120,000 kWh over its lifetime, and savings of approximately 75% on utility bills for its new owners. This is a huge savings for this family.
Solar Spring Break lets students get involved in every aspect of solar projects. They helped on service calls, did site surveys with the construction crew, performed outreach tasks introducing solar and its benefits in surrounding areas, as well as got on the rooftops to install solar panels. GRID Alternatives not only helps in obtaining solar for families, it also provides training which may lead to job placement for many in the renewable energy field.
A graduating UNC senior says, “I love the community that GRID impacts. I thought it was really helpful to try and understand the people that you are working with and how to help them understand the benefits of solar…[Solar Spring Break] showed the positive impact that solar can make in an entirely wider community than you would initially think. Often times, we think of solar as only affecting smaller households, but it really does have a place in larger society. Everyone can hear about it and help out,”. The group from UNC agreed they enjoyed seeing the community members who were helped, and were happy knowing their work decreased their energy bills. Being in Los Angeles, doing hands-on work is something you don’t get in a classroom.