(Solar) power to the people

A Grid Alternatives installation in Kerman, CA

Like many environmentally-friendly products, rooftop solar power is a luxury that most Americans can’t afford: Before subsidies, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to power a typical house.*

GRID Alternatives, an Oakland, CA-based nonprofit, is trying to change that–and making headway.

Launched in 2004, GRID Alternatives has grown along with the solar industry. This year, it expects to install solar on the rooftops of about 1,000 California homes owned by low-income people. It has seven offices, a staff of about 100 people and a budget of about $25 million. The organization will soon expand to Colorado and beyond.

GRID Alternatives  relies on volunteers, panels donated or sold at low cost by the solar industry, subsidies from the state of California and donations to make the model work. “It’s a barn raising model,” says Erica Mackie, the co-founder and executive director.

This month, GRID Alternatives announced partnerships with two big solar panel manufacturers that should drive its growth further. SunPower, with headquarters in San Jose, Ca., and Yingli Solar, a Chinese manufacturer with US offices in San Francisco, are supporting GRID Alternatives with a combination of donations and “fair market value sales” to bring clean energy to as many as 600 low-income families in California and Colorado, and to provide hands-on solar experience to thousands of green job seekers. Many who volunteer with GRID Alternatives go on to jobs in the solar industry, it turns out.

Tim Sears and Erica Mackie

I met recently with exec director Erica Mackie in Oakland. Erica is a mechanical engineer. She was was working with her co-founder, Tim Sears, as energy efficiency consultants when the two of them decided to leap to the nonprofit world. They could see solar PV starting to become accepted in the commercial sector and wondered why “people who are struggling month to month to pay their bills have no access to this wonderful technology,” she told me.

The reason, of course, is that the upfront costs of rooftop solar are high and the complexity of installing panels is daunting to many people. To overcome the financial hurdles, GRID Alternatives takes advantage of a program known as Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) that it manages for the state of California. Financed by utilities Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric, SASH provides fully or highly subsidized solar systems to qualified low-income homeowners. Then, once the money’s lined up, GRID Alternatives does everything a for-profit solar contractor would do–the paperwork, the arrangements requiredto connect to the utility, installation, the warranty and maintenance.

Homeowners own the solar ystems which, in theory, should add value to their homes. In the meantime, they enjoy dramatically reduced utility bills. When solar panels go up on one house, demand grows. “In a lot of neighborhoods, it’s families telling each other,” Erica says.

All of this is laudable. But can it scale? Nonprofits that depend on donations can’t be counted on to grow. Having said that, it’s smart for utilities and the solar industry to support programs like SASH and nonprofits like GRID Alternatives. If solar spreads widely, utilities won’t have to build more power-generating facilities. The solar industry, meanwhile, needs all the goodwill it can get, given its dependence on subsidies from Washington and state capitals.

Jigar Shah, a solar industry pioneer who now leads the Carbon War Room, told me by email:

The process of bringing in “everyone” in to the solar revolution is much harder than it appears.  Most people believe that the poor should be grateful that they are receiving solar and consequently reduced electricity bills, but the education process is just getting started at Grid Alternatives is doing it better than anyone….My sense is that their model for bringing solar to everyone will be commonplace within 5 years.

Certainly the solar industry as a whole is growing. Just today, the Solar Electric Industries Association reported that the industry “installed a record 1,855 megawatts (MW) of photovoltaic (PV) capacity in 2011, more than doubling the previous annual record of 887 MW set in 2010.” It’s the first time the U.S. solar market has topped one gigawatt (1,000 MW) in a single year.

*It’s not easy to estimate the cost of putting solar panels on a typical home. GRID Alternatives  says their average systems size is around 2.8 kW (AC), but they put in systems as small as 1kW and as large as any residential installer would.  Our range for retail cost would be $10,000-$30,0000. Last fall, Martin Lamonica of CNET, citing a government study, reported that:

From 2009 to 2010, the price of a residential solar electric system fell 17 percent to $6.20 per watt, or a $1.30 decline. Measured from 1998, the installed costs fell 43 percent.

According to a solar industry website, an average home requires about a 5- or 6-kilowatt solar system. Do the math and the costs add up to $25,000 to $30,000 per home.

But if you’re thinking of installing solar on your roof, you need not pay in cash. Leasing models from such companies as SunRun, Solar City and Sungevity have made solar more affordable. So have an array of subsidies for homeowners (here in the US) and manufacturers (in China).


  1. says

    Hi Marc:
    My hats off to you for your informative article “(Solar) Power to the People”.
    Your article is detailed and really helps to highlight the “Sash” program. Personally, I project that eventually all homes will be solar powered and anyone who has already had solar installed are already reaping the benefits.
    Keep up the great posts!
    Robin C.

  2. Stuart says


    How much maintenance and cleaning, if any, are required for residential solar panels? If it is required, do these programs provide assistance to the homeowners after installation?


    • Marc Gunther says

      Stuart, good question, my impression (yes, I’m hedging here) is that they don’t require much cleaning or maintenance but I will ask GRID Alternatives to respond.

      • says

        Hi Stuart,
        Solar panels have no moving parts and maintenance is minimal, but for optimal performance, it is a good idea to clean them periodically. In most cases this can be done from the ground with a garden hose. GRID Alternatives provides all the families we serve with instructions on use and maintenance, as well as a 10-year warranty on their solar electric systems, and our clients know they can come to us with questions or concerns at any time. The panels themselves are warrantied for 25 years by the manufacturers.

  3. Sibley says


    I have to post a strong disagreement with your first sentence. The only reason these solar systems are so expensive is that typical homes use so much power! It’s not that “most Americans” can’t afford solar power, they just can’t afford to maintain the very high level of power consumption on a green system. I would say that a correct version of your sentence is “As with many environmentally-friendly products, most American’s don’t choose to prioritize using them.”

    The solar panels we have providing 100% of our electricity cost under $1k on Craigslist. That’s about what Most American households pay for their cable TV bill every year, or what many households have paid for a big screen TV. We put them up ourselves, and added about $2000 for batteries, charge controller, and miscellaneous other parts, and there we are. No electrical bill.

    There is no “can’t afford” for at least 70% of households. There’s “choose not to care enough about the issue to live that way.”

    And for Stuart, other than letting the rain rinse them, we haven’t done any maintenance on our solar panels since installing them 3 years ago. Since we’re an off the grid system, we’ll probably have to replace our batteries every few years for a few hundred dollars.


    • Marc Gunther says

      Of course you are 100% right. It is easy for those of us living conventional, upper class lifestyles to forget that our big electricity bills, and the solar power we would need to replace them, result from choices to live with big screen TVs, washing machines and dryers, refrigerators (yes, two in my case), dishwasher, lots of gadgets, air conditioning (which to be sure is more of a “necessity” in Bethesda, Md., than it is where you live in Santa Cruz), spacious homes, etc. . Because so few people talk about it, it’s easy to forget that consumption is at the heart of the environmental problems in the US. Thanks for your perspective.

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