Companies pitch in on Madera Solarthon

Hundreds turned up for GRID Alternatives' annual Solarthon on April 21Hundreds turned up for GRID Alternatives' annual Solarthon on April 21Hundreds converged on a subdivision in Madera on April 21 to help nine low-income families save through solar power.

With a number of independent solar contractors, private companies and job trainees pulling together, the 2012 Solarthon was a testament to the kind of support shown to nonprofit solar installer GRID Alternatives since it established a presence in the Central Valley three years ago.

Self-Help Enterprises hosted this year’s Solarthon block party in its Parksdale community in Madera where 40 homes may eventually be equipped with solar panels to save money for residents struggling to afford electricity.

For the nine families receiving brand new solar systems at little to no cost during the event, the savings are estimated at $263,000 for the lifetimes of the panels, which will produce a total of 1.6 million kilowatt-hours over the next 25 to 30 years. Together, they will eliminate more than 102 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The intention is to do as many as we can,” said Julian Foley, communications manager with GRID. “And it’s nice to get support from our private companies.”

The morning began with several of the families serving a home-cooked breakfast for the volunteers who not only came out to install the solar systems, but spent the past few months raising funds for the event.

Parksdale resident Esmerelda Avila, 29, who has lived in the neighborhood for five months with herEsmerelda Avila and boyfriend Daniel Madrigal helped make breakfast for Solarthon volunteersEsmerelda Avila and boyfriend Daniel Madrigal helped make breakfast for Solarthon volunteers boyfriend and four children, pitched in with French toast, eggs and bacon and even helped the group of around 16 Proteus trainees put solar panels on her roof.

“It’s going to help me save a lot,” Avila said. “I see this as a good day.”

John Mejia, 38, was among several in the group working to set the systems in the blazing sun as part of a 6-week course on photovoltaic design and installation offered through Proteus.

Formerly employed by Dunlap Engineering, Mejia found himself unemployed when the local office folded. Then he heard about the Proteus program through a friend and thought he’d get some hands-on experience in the fast-growing solar industry.

“I’m going to volunteer a little more so I’m comfortable with what I’m doing,” Mejia said. “Then I’m going to look for a job.”

More than 256 have completed coursework in energy-related programs since Proteus began offering them in 2010. Beside solar installation, the agency — which has training centers in Fresno and Visalia for unemployed and low-income adults looking for new career fields — also has a 4-week weatherization program and a 10-week technician program covering all aspects of energy efficiency and renewable energy technology.

Bryson Pagh, one of five Real Goods Solar employees out for the Solarthon, received his training about a year and a half ago from a solar program at Fresno City College. But he said it was through his experience volunteering with GRID Alternatives on several of its installations for over two years that helped him get a full-time job in the solar industry.

“They had a good teacher who emphasized the point that you can learn a lot in a classroom but you really need hands-on experience,” said Pagh, 27, a systems designer and site surveyor with Real Goods Solar. “It can be overwhelming, that’s why coming out with GRID helps you, they’ll go at a slow pace, there’s no pressure to be an expert.”

Around seven enrolled in the solar photovoltaic course at Modesto Junior College also made the trip south to help with the installations while 17 from the Alternatives Energy Resource Occupation academy at Porterville High School traveled up to work as well.

More hands came from solar firms like Lifestyle Solar and Real Goods Solar while Yingli Solar and SunPower Corporations also provided solar modules for the homes. Companies as diverse as PG&E, Schneider Electric and Wells Fargo also contributed a workforce to help get the job done.

A team of Wells Fargo employees installs solar panels on one of nine roofsA team of Wells Fargo employees installs solar panels on one of nine roofsWells Fargo even presented a $100,000 check to support GRID Alternatives’ mission to make solar power affordable for those in need across the state.

Krista Van Tassel, environmental affairs manager with Wells Fargo in San Francisco, arrived with around eight Wells Fargo employees to install panels on one of the homes. Many of them heard about the Solarthon through the company’s volunteer website.

“It’s a fun way to get our members involved to understand renewable energy and hopefully put it on their own homes,” Van Tassel said.

Beside all the hard work, the hundreds of helpers that came out were also treated to a chicken and chili lunch from Ribs and Tips while prizes were given out for those that raised the most money for the event. And the event was particularly special as every voice was raised to sing happy birthday to GRID Alternatives’ co-founder Erica Mackie.

Local leaders were also enjoying the camaraderie and speaking in solidarity to GRID’s work, including Madera County Supervisor Max Rodriguez and Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno).

“GRID Alternatives is more than dealing with clean energy — it also contributes to creating a more robust energy portfolio,” Costa said. “We’ve got to make sure that America leads the way in energy alternatives and GRID is a part of that.”

Since GRID Alternatives established its Central Valley office in 2009, the organization has equipped 230 homes with solar power throughout 12 counties, helping low-income families in the region save an estimated $7 million in their energy bills.

“The Central Valley is now one of our biggest (offices) in terms of projects,” said GRID co-founder Tim Sears.

Founded in 2001, the Oakland-based organization has seven offices statewide, installing solar systems for low-income families using rebates from California's Single-Family Affordable Solar Housing program funded by energy ratepayers.