Modern Trades: Volunteers Train for a Solar Future

Solar panels are appearing on roofs all over the Southland. But who is installing them? A group called GRID Alternatives teaches volunteers how to install solar panels for low-income families.

Amanda Penny and her son Max in front of their Long Beach home, where GRID Alternatives volunteers are installing a solar panel. Photos by Avishay Artsy.
Amanda Penny and her son Max in front of their Long Beach home, where GRID Alternatives volunteers are installing a solar panel. Photos by Avishay Artsy.

On a recent weekday morning, a team of volunteers climbed onto the roof of a home in Long Beach to install a solar panel. The volunteers are with a group called GRID Alternatives. It’s a national organization with a branch in the Southland. It’s been compared to a rooftop university for aspiring solar professionals, who are often enrolled in community colleges and vocational training programs.

The group uses a barn-raising model similar to Habitat for Humanity. They install solar panels, for free, for low-income families and along the way they teach volunteers how to install the panels with a view to getting them industry jobs later.

DnA producer Avishay Artsy tagged along for this installment of our “Modern Trades” series, about the changing nature of manual labor jobs, and how traditional skills meet new technology.

One of the supervisors, Jonathan Monge, is a good example of how the organization works. He grew up in Bell Gardens, and was taking classes to become an electrician at the Southern California Institute of Technology in Anaheim when he heard about GRID through a classmate. After volunteering with GRID he got a job as a solar installer at Solar World, and came back to GRID when they offered him a job.

“Most of our volunteers are here trying to find work in the solar industry, trying to get a foot in the door,” Monge said. “A lot of them don’t have the on-the-roof experience that a lot of these companies require coming out of schools or coming out from a different trade. So we give them the on-the-roof experience so they can have a shot of getting an interview and then pass that interview.”

Monge said what these volunteers are doing is very similar to what for-profit companies do when they install residential solar panels.

Volunteers work on installing a solar panel in Long Beach.
Volunteers work on installing a solar panel in Long Beach.

On this particular morning, solar installation supervisor Diana Adams led several new volunteers through the process of getting the panels installed. Adams moved to LA from North Carolina with a hip-hop group, but decided she didn’t want to be a rapper after all. She started taking classes at East LA Skills Center and found out about GRID. She volunteered for a summer, went on to get a job at Semper Solaris, and earlier this year was hired by GRID. Adams estimates she’s been on over 500 roofs at this point.

“You know, two installs a day for profit, it’s kind of different from here. Here it’s a learning space. We’re just all about being safe, we’re all about learning and just making sure that the volunteers take something back with them that’s valuable, and that they get back home safely. For profit it’s just kind of like, how many modules can we get up in a day?,” Adams said.

Adams is like a lot of GRID’s volunteers. While the group initially attracted community members just looking to help, in the last few years more volunteers have been participants in job training programs.

Jose Ramos, an ex-felon now volunteering with GRID Alternatives
Jose Ramos, an ex-felon studying at East LA Skills Center and volunteering with GRID Alternatives

Some of the volunteers are also ex-felons. Like Jose Ramos, a South LA native who spent 14 years in prison. He’s taking a six-month accelerated photovoltaic program through East LA Skills Center, and the gang rehabilitation organization Homeboy Industries is paying his tuition. DnA asked him if he might consider attending a union apprenticeship training program.

“That is an option for me. Of course there is a little bit more stricter guidelines when you deal with the unions. But the demand for solar energy workers is so high that they’ve even started back-dooring people into the union. And this is something that you don’t hear too much about. So that means that they’re even willing to overlook criminal history, because the demand for solar workers is pretty big right now,” Adams said.

DnA checked with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11 about Ramos’s claim that the union is allowing people in through a back door. Kevin Norton, the IBEW Local 11’s assistant business manager, said that the union has added a four-year construction wireman and construction electrician program to meet the demand for solar workers. But, Norton said, the union has never conducted background checks and does allow ex-felons to join the union, provided they pass an initial drug test and a follow-up random drug test.

Levi Ortega, a volunteer with GRID Alternatives
Levi Ortega, a volunteer with GRID Alternatives

The owner of the Long Beach home, Amanda Penny, is studying to be an ayurvedic postpartum doula to provide support to mothers after childbirth. Her husband is in the military, and they have an eight-month-old baby named Max. They estimate their power bills will be cut by about 90 percent with a solar panel on the roof.

GRID Alternative receives funding from several sources. A large chunk of it comes from California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, the cap-and-trade program. Part of that is earmarked for solar installation in disadvantaged areas. Money also comes from the California Public Utilities Commission’s SASH program, which pays for solar installation for customers of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), or San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). For-profit solar companies, like SunEdison and SunPower, also donate money and equipment.

SunEdison, however, recently declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and GRID Alternatives has filed a lawsuit against the SunEdison Foundation seeking nearly $2.3 million in unpaid donations. SunEdison is GRID’s largest funding source, and had pledged $5 million to support GRID over two years.

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Adewale OgunBadejo (left), the workforce development manager for GRID Alternatives, and Michael Kadish, the group’s executive director, outside a solar power installation in Long Beach.

Despite that, the solar industry is still growing. The Solar Energy Industries Association found a 16% increase in solar installations from 2014 to 2015. And residential solar is the fastest-growing sector in U.S. solar, growing 66% from 2014 to 2015. A new study from Mercom Capital Group projects a 15% growth in the global solar industry this year, with most of that growth in the U.S., India, China and Japan.

GRID Alternative’s biggest challenge may be a lack of awareness. The group is still relatively unknown, even though it’s been in the area since 2007 and has installed solar panels on about 1,000 homes so far. Last year they did over 200 rooftop solar installations, and this year they’re planning to do over 300.

“We’re really in a unique space as a solar nonprofit,” said Adewale OgunBadejo, the workforce development manager for GRID Alternatives. “There’s not many organizations like us throughout the country. And I think our biggest challenges are just reaching out to as many homeowners as possible… There’s still a lot of communities to access and I think the services that we provide are great, but you know, it’s really about educating the community and creating awareness.”