GRID Alternatives is Using Solar Power to Build Community Across the Americas

Meghan French Dunbar March 5, 2016


Location: Based in Oakland, CA, with 10 offices nationwide plus one in Nicaragua

Founded: 2001

Team Members: 260

Structure: Nonprofit 


• 480,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions avoided by use of the solar systems installed by GRID Alternatives — the equivalent of taking 92,000 cars off the road

• $168 million in total lifetime electricity bill savings created for more than 6,300 families

• 24,000 job trainees have learned to install solar systems with GRID Alternatives

GRID Alternatives is on a mission to prove that solar panels can do so much more than reduce carbon emissions. Inspired by the community barn-raising model of old, GRID Alternatives works with local volunteers and job trainees to install photovoltaic (PV) solar systems on the homes of low-income families. The panels stabilize and reduce electricity bills for the families, who can then use the savings for other crucial expenses like food and school supplies. Job trainees can parlay their hands-on experience installing the panels into full-time jobs in the solar industry, a growing field that offers well-paying jobs even for those without a college degree. Low-income communities, who are often the most adversely affected by traditional sources of energy production like coal-burning, benefit from reduced pollution locally, and all of us, of course, benefit from reduced carbon emissions.

Co-founders Erica Mackie and Tim Sears previously worked as professional engineers implementing large-scale renewable energy and energy efficiency projects for the private sector; but as Mackie explained, “We’d write up reports telling big companies how they could save millions of dollars through energy upgrades, and then we’d come back to our homes, here to the Bay Area, where our neighbors were struggling to pay their electric bills and people were being left on the sidelines of the clean tech job boom for lack of training. We thought if we could just get enough people together, we could change who has access to clean power and its benefits.” So in 2001 they founded GRID Alternatives, which later became the statewide administrator for California’s solar rebate program for low-income families.

In recent years, GRID Alternatives has expanded around the country and to Nicaragua with a diverse set of programs and initiatives. In Colorado, for example, the organization works with rural electric utilities to build community solar gardens, which allow renters or anyone else who cannot put panels on their own roof to enjoy the benefits of solar energy.

In the fall of 2015, GRID Alternatives brought solar panels and solar job training opportunities to Native American tribal areas to highlight the unique challenges many tribal members face around energy and energy access. Mackie explained, “Over the course of two weeks, we installed solar in four different communities around the country, providing both solar power and solar job training to tribal members. One of the projects was for Henry Yazzie, a Navajo veteran in Leupp, Arizona, who, like more than 15,000 other Navajo families, had never had electricity before. Members of several local chapter houses and other tribal volunteers came out to help with the installation. Seeing the smile on his face when he flipped the switch, and knowing what a huge difference it would make for his life, was a powerful reminder of why we do this work.”

GRID Alternatives has demonstrated that solar energy is a powerful tool for addressing not only environmental challenges, but economic and social challenges, as well. As the solar industry continues to grow, GRID Alternative plans to continue to grow with it, leveraging the power of the sun to build stronger communities.

1. Financial Relief

By reducing and stabilizing energy costs, solar can provide struggling families with long-term financial relief, providing them with more money to put food on the table, save for their kids’ education, or maintain their homes.

 2. Employment

The growth of the industry is providing tens of thousands of new, well-paid, and high-growth job opportunities each year, which are accessible without a college degree.

 3. Improved Health

Solar power is a source of clean, local energy that can help reduce pollution in communities that have borne the brunt of the negative effects of traditional power generation.


Climate Action / Stakeholder Capitalism
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