GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that empowers low-income communities with solar, turns 10. While the company has grown exponentially in recent years, there’s still a lot more to come.
What do engineers do when faced with a problem? They make a list.
That’s what Erica Mackie and Tim Sears did back in 2001. They had good engineering jobs. They could have stayed in those jobs. But they saw people around them who were unable to enjoy the benefits others were getting from solar power. And they decided to do something about it. So they “hatched this crazy idea …”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Solar for all
GRID Alternatives was born of a simple (and not so crazy) idea: that solar power can bring economic and environmental justice benefits to those who need them the most. Sears and Mackie, who at the time seemed to some like “hippies in T-shirts, super young and carefree,” didn’t stop to wonder where their list might lead. They just got to work doing what they saw needed to be done.
Ten years ago today, GRID Alternatives, a young nonprofit, installed its first solar system for a low-income family.
“We didn’t know then what GRID would become,” Mackie noted at GRID’s recent 10th-anniversary party, but they knew that the voice of Elizabeth, one of their first clients, “was critical to our country’s energy conversation, we knew she deserved to live affordably in her home and not have to worry about choosing between clothes for her kids and paying her electricity bill.”
Fast-forward a decade: GRID has installed over 12 MW of solar for 4000 low-income families, saving them $110 million in lifetime electricity costs. With two installations in the first year, Mackie says, “We thought we were a smashing success.” Since then, GRID has grown exponentially, now installing over 1000 solar systems a year. And GRID has trained over 15,000 people to install solar, many of them going on to get good jobs in the industry.
If you ever find yourself wondering whether one or two people can make a difference, here’s your answer. As Mackie and Sears found, one or two people can quickly become dozens, then hundreds, then thousands.
Mackie notes, “The challenges our world is facing are interconnected.” In line with this, GRID’s version of doing something is not to swoop in and tell less-privileged people what they need. Instead, they partner with communities for a more ground-up approach.
GRID has expanded throughout California as well as establishing offices in other states. Its new international program, with the acquisition of Power to the People, is taking them to remote areas of Nicaragua, where the need for electricity is great.
Jenean Smith, founder of Power to the People, established a program that relies on a Nicaraguan solar contractor. The local communities set up energy committees to provide ongoing leadership and maintenance oversight. With the solar contractor, three in-country staff members ensure the solar knowledge is passed on to others in the communities. While installation trips bring in volunteers from the U.S., that’s not because the work couldn’t be done locally. The value comes from the volunteers providing funding, as well as the cultural exchange that happens.
And this is just as true for GRID’s domestic work. In every community GRID works with, they start by developing partnerships. They find other organizations that are dealing with the same kinds of issues they focus on: unemployment, job skills, affordable housing, poverty, the environment. They ask those organizations how they can add value to the work already being done. The Bishop Paiute tribe, for example, already had a classroom-based solar training program — for them, GRID provided the hands-on installation training they needed.
The idea of partnership and cultural exchange is key to GRID’s work and runs through all of what they do. I’ve experienced this firsthand at their annual Bay Area Solarthon. Last year’s took volunteers into a low-income Richmond, California neighborhood, where many might otherwise never set foot. Spending a day there and seeing what it’s like can be life-changing.
Looking toward a sustainable future
Mackie and Sears have been asked, Could you imagine all this ten years ago? Probably not. They may be asked that again in another ten years — while GRID has been on a trajectory of fast growth, there’s always more to be done. As Sears says, “In a lot of ways it feels like it’s just the beginning.”
As GRID scales up, its founders look at new ways to operate in the face of funding shifts and varied solar landscapes from state to state.
Like the good engineers they are, they still keep lists. A few items on their latest:
More national expansion: GRID is planning offices in the Mid-Atlantic and other parts of the U.S.
Tribal and international programs: GRID’s tribal program includes expanding work with the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest communities in the U.S. In both the tribal program and in Nicaragua, GRID is exploring work with off-grid systems.
Job training: GRID will continue to help ensure that the industry’s pipeline of workers includes women, veterans, and the underemployed.
- Work with HUD: Obama has committed to 100 MW of solar on federally assisted housing. GRID is working with HUD and other federal agencies to support the development of this national initiative. GRID will be piloting a project this year in Fresno, California.
Last but by no means least on this list: In Mackie’s words, “With your help, we will ensure that the voices of those so often left out will be at the table this time when we as a country, as a state, and as a city are making energy policy. We will collectively be the voice of equal access and of inclusion.”