The Juice

How Solar Installations Could Be the Barn-Raisings of the 21st Century

One nonprofit is already making it happen—and helping working-class homeowners along the way.

When properly structured, rooftop solar—and other green efforts like energy efficiency—can help people of more modest incomes increase their purchasing power.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Thinkstock.

In late October, a group of volunteers—engineers and lawyers who work in the energy business, all of them, coincidentally, women—met in front of a three-story, 120-year-old brick rowhouse in Sunset Park, a gentrifying working-class section of Brooklyn. Stepping carefully through the tidy garden in the back, they donned harnesses and grabbed bags of tools. Guided by construction professionals, they hoisted 14 solar panels onto the roof and then set about installing them.

Gus Guzman, who has owned the house since 1982, watched. A native of the Dominican Republic, he’s a retired illustrator of record and CD covers for Sony and Columbia Records. His wife does wallpaper restoration. Guzman is paying for part of an installation through a $4,000 loan to be paid off on his Con Edison electricity bill over the next 10 years. Even with those monthly payments, he expects his electricity bill, which averages about $105 per month, to fall in half, since he’ll get a credit for the power the panels produce. Over the course of the year, he expects to save about $600. “This will help me make my car payments,” he said.

This 21st century barn-raising—most of the materials, labor, and planning necessary for the project were donated—was overseen by Grid Alternatives, an 11-year-old nonprofit based in Oakland, California, that has turned the socioeconomics of rooftop solar on its head. Generally, residential solar has been a luxury product. As recently as 10 years ago, it was a showy way of demonstrating green cred. Homeowners had to make a huge upfront investment that likely wouldn’t produce financial returns. In recent years, the price of panels has fallen and new business models like solar leases and power purchase agreements have emerged. That lets companies like SolarCity and Vivint pitch solar to the merely well-off. But you still need to own a house, have a big roof, and have excellent credit in order to qualify. As a result, the business models surrounding solar still tend to perpetuate green privilege.

That’s too bad. Because when properly structured, rooftop solar—and other green efforts like energy efficiency—can help people of more modest incomes increase their purchasing power. Electricity and heat take a large bite out of the budgets of lower-income people. Permanently slash a family’s energy bill, and it’s like sending them a check every month. Grid Alternatives takes the thinking one step further. “We hatched this idea of transitioning as a country to clean power and doing it in a way that includes everyone—everyone as consumers having access to it, but also everyone having access if they want to [have] jobs in the growing industry and the training,” Erica Mackie, a co-founder of Grid Alternatives, told me.

Grid Alternatives has 10 offices across the U.S. (and one in Nicaragua) and does about 1,000 installations per year. It has an annual budget of about $30 million.

In order to qualify to be a Grid Alternatives client, homeowners must have income that is 80 percent or less of the median of the county in which they live. (In Brooklyn, that means a family must make less than $65,000 to qualify.) To make the arrangement work, Grid Alternatives works the system. It designs the installations, obtains the construction permits, and applies for all the relevant federal, state, and utility-based incentives available for renewable energy. (Some states and utilities have specific programs aimed at helping lower-income customers go green.) It solicits donations of equipment from solar companies; at the rowhouse I visited, the panels were donated by Sun Edison and the inverters by Enphase. Rather than sell or lease the systems to homeowners, it often arranges for a third party like Kilowatt Financial to own them (and thus reap the associated tax credits). In most instances, the homeowners are on the hook for a portion of the cost.

Grid Alternatives has a broader mission beyond lowering emissions. By educating its customers about energy-efficiency products and programs at the same time it installs the panels, the organization said it can ultimately help people save up to 75 percent on their electricity bills. More significantly, it provides job training. In addition to its 200 employees, Grid Alternatives has 50 SolarCorps Fellows, who often go on to work in the solar industry after their yearlong stints. This week, Grid Alternatives announced it was starting an initiative to train 1,000 military veterans and active service members to work in the solar industry. “We’re really trying very hard not just to put up solar for the sake of putting up solar,” Mackie said.

Far from being in competition with the large solar installers, Grid Alternatives is a sort of industry adjunct. Grid Alternatives effectively provides training for workers who will go on to become installers for big firms like SolarCity. “And mostly we’re working with clients that the big solar companies don’t want, because they don’t have a lot of money,” Mackie said.

The business is difficult to scale; over the past decade, Grid Alternatives has installed about 6,000 systems with a combined capacity of 20.5 megawatts. This year, it plans to install about 1,300—about four per day. But it’s very much a custom, retail business—not a wholesale one. It can be difficult to find candidates. Potential customers must generally own their homes while earning substantially less than their region’s median wage and have unshaded roofs that can support panels.

While the number may be small, Grid Alternatives represents an important contribution. “The solar industry started at the top of the pyramid, serving wealthy environmentalists, and third-party ownership has pushed it down toward the middle class,” said Mackie. “We’ve started at the bottom of the pyramid and are pushing up.”