Photos courtesy of CALPIRG Energy Service Corps
In the first photo, East Palo Alto homeowner, Lea Martinez, left, is shown with Meagan Mujushi, the project manager for Sustainable Silicon Valley. In the second photo, Betsy Yañez is shown with two solar installers, in front of her East Palo Alto home, holding part of the solar installation for her roof.
Lea Martinez met me after work at her mother’s house in East Palo Alto and introduced me to her family members one by one, first her mom and then her children, all sitting around a big screen TV set in a dimly lit living room. She has six kids and two grandchildren, which is not an unusual family size in East Palo Alto.
Martinez is one of the first adopters of the Net Positive Bay Area project launched in East Palo Alto by Sustainable Silicon Valley (SSV), an environmental non-profit organization that has been promoting resource conservation in the Bay Area for 15 years.
As part of the project, SSV will conduct a free energy and water audit in her house; then, GRID Alternatives, an Oakland-based nonprofit solar contractor and SSV partner, will install solar panels on her roof, also, for free.
GRID Alternatives is the statewide program manager for the California Solar Initiative’s Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) Program, a program that allows low-income families the unique opportunity to install photovoltaic panels at little to no cost.
In the last 11 years, GRID Alternatives has installed 1,160 subsidized PV systems in the Bay Area. To qualify for this program, one needs to be a resident of East Palo Alto, a homeowner (even if the land is leased), have a monthly electric bill of $30 or more, and a household income less than 80% of the area median. (For example, for a family of four that would be equal to or below $90,500 a year). If your income is less than 50% of area median, you would qualify for a fully subsidized solar system.
“I think the majority of East Palo Alto residents fall into this ‘low-income’ category, like I do,” Martinez said. “And since this is free, or very close to free, I don’t see any reason why East Palo Altans would not want to install solar panels with GRID Alternatives.”
Being an Ecumenical Hunger Program officer, Martinez knows better than anyone that environmental problems disproportionally affect low-income families. Most of the high tech innovations which help us maintain sustainability and support the environment – such as electric cars, solar panels, or LED bulbs – require significant investments. Even if they eventually pay off, the upfront costs are prohibitive for disadvantaged families. Programs like SASH and PG&E rebates for buyers of energy efficient appliances help fix this imbalance.
GRID Alternatives Bay Area's Outreach Manager Justine Blanchet explains that "GRID leverages multiples funding sources, including state incentives, federal tax credit and philanthropic efforts, to make solar energy affordable for lower income homeowners living in the communities most affected by environmental pollution. Each installation provides volunteers and job trainees an opportunity to get hands on experience in the installation of solar photovoltaic systems and give them a leg up to find a job in the growing solar industry.”
There is no doubt that solar energy will offer Martinez substantial savings, since her monthly PG&E bill is close to $375, a major portion of which is electricity cost. Even a 50% reduction in this burden will free up funds of a few thousand dollars a year. Plus, understanding her energy use, along with purchasing energy efficient appliances, can save $50 to $150 per year. In addition, PG&E offers rebates for energy efficient appliances of $50 to $500 per unit.
But savings was not the primary motivation behind her decision to enroll in the SSV project. “Anything that helps me save my money I appreciate, but it’s bigger to me to help the planet,” Martinez said.
As a mother of six and a grandmother of two, Martinez is a true environmentalist: “I do look towards the future, and I’m asking myself: what am I leaving to my kids? What do I want to impart them with?” As the atmospheric CO2 emissions continue to grow, threatening the very future of humanity, any effort to cut the use of conventional carbon-intensive energy is extremely valuable.
Interestingly enough, many of the East Palo Alto dwellers grew up in resource mindful communities. Martinez’ father was brought up poor in Guatemala and literally “grilled” resource appreciation into his children. “And today, when I am teaching my children to conserve water and electricity, to recycle, I can clearly hear some of the things that my dad told me,” Martinez said. “I hear his words coming out of my mouth, and I look over my shoulder and go: ‘Ah, you taught me that!’”
The Net Positive project in East Palo Alto is aimed at completing energy and water audits for ten single-family residences in the city, and installing solar panels where applicable by the end of this year. SSV is committed to providing all East Palo Alto participants with renovated, efficient energy systems that will save them money, by bringing the cost of their electricity bills to zero dollars.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To inquire about GRID's solar program for homeowners, call 510-731-1333. For all other questions, visit www.gridalternatives.org.
[Editor’s note: On Friday, August 14, 2015, there was a small block party in East Palo Alto to dedicate the first "solar home" within the Net Positive Project; East Palo Alto resident Betsy Yañez was the happy owner of her home’s solar panels and she celebrated her new green energy system.].
The above article, by Natalia Timakova, is a reprint of the article titled, Homeowners get free solar that appears on page 5 of the Spring - Summer 2015 issue of the East Palo Alto Today newspaper. See the online files of the issue here.