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How One Organization Is Making Solar Energy Available To Those Who Can’t Afford It

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"How One Organization Is Making Solar Energy Available To Those Who Can’t Afford It"

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Michael Bennet, Jarret Esposito, Jake Torwatzky

CREDIT: AP/Ed Andrieski

Rick Lopez said he felt like he’d won the lottery.

Lopez, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran and Denver, CO resident, had a 3-kilowatt solar system installed on his house by a group of volunteers on Wednesday, completely free of charge. The project was initiated by GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit organization whose story was highlighted in the Denver Post this week. Lopez’s new system should provide power for 60 to 100 percent of his home’s electricity, and will save him hundreds of dollars in electricity costs each year.

“We would never have been able to do this on our own,” Rick’s wife Roberta Lopez told the Denver Business Journal. “We take it as a blessing.”

California-based GRID Alternatives installs solar systems on low-income households in California, Colorado and soon, in New York and New Jersey. The organization has installed 3,500 solar systems in California so far, projects that according to the organization have saved the homeowners $80 million in energy costs and will result in the reduction of 250,000 tons of greenhouse gasses over their lifetimes.

Once the solar system is installed, the homeowner pays GRID two cents for every kilowatt-hour that the solar panels produce, which typically results in energy bill savings of 80 percent. If the system produces all the household’s energy, a homeowner in Colorado would pay just $13 per month to GRID, compared to the state’s average $75.67 electricity bill.

“It’s really just a huge relief for those families,” Julian Foley, GRID Alternative’s communication manager told Denver Westword. “They can spend money on other things they need… That’s spending money that goes back to the community.”

And the free installation is key — though the price of installing solar in the U.S. has fallen to record lows, it’s still out of reach for many Americans. The solar systems GRID installs can cost up to $17,000, but grants bring the cost down to about $5,000.

GRID depends on volunteers to complete the installations, a setup which, along with donated equipment and corporate backing, helps make the organization’s work possible. But job trainees also work on installations — the organization partners with local community colleges and organizations like Veterans Green Jobs to provide job training for the clean energy sector. Through these partnerships, the organization also finds people who are eligible to receive free solar systems — those at an income level of 80 percent or below their area’s median level.

In California, the work GRID does also gets state funding through the Single-family Affordable Solar Homes Program (SASH). The program provides up-front rebates for low-income families who want to install solar systems, and GRID is the program manager for SASH’s $108 million in funds. The program will run until December 2015 or until the funding runs out — and as the demand for SASH and its counterpart, the Multi-family Affordable Solar Homes Program, which provides rebates for affordable housing projects, grows, the second scenario is looking more realistic. A bill has been taken up in the California Assembly to extend funding of the program to 2021.

Though it might be one of the most extensive, GRID isn’t the only group that aims to bring clean energy and energy efficiency to low-income Americans. Washington, D.C. provides a low-income option for its renewable energy incentive program, and in New York City, Enterprise Community Partners is building super-efficient affordable housing buildings — a new 197-unit development New York City is LEED and Energy Star certified and has 214-kilowatt solar system on its roof. A New York state program provides free insulation, draft reduction, high efficiency lighting and appliance upgrades to low-income residents, and Vermont has a similar program.

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