Women in power
Nonprofit GRID Alternatives brings female students to Chico to learn about solar industry, help local low-income families
On a recent afternoon, six young women wearing hard hats bearing their names lugged solar panels larger than themselves, hoisted them over their heads and attached them to the roof of a house off Eaton Road. This was their idea of spring break.
“It’s pretty incredible that these women chose not to go party, or sit around and watch TV, during spring break,” said Rebekah Casey, director of development and strategic partnerships at GRID Alternatives in Chico. “Instead, they chose to do a learning service.”
By learning service (aka service- learning), Casey was referring to the fact that the women in question, all students at the University of Nevada, Reno, were in town to perform community service by installing solar panels on the homes of two local, low-income families. At the same time, they were here to learn about solar installation and the benefits using solar energy can have for the environment—not to mention the pocketbooks of homeowners.
“It’s a good touch point for people going into these fields, to see the real-world application,” Casey said. “These students may not go into solar installation, but they may be future engineers who go into equipment design or sales. We want to expose them to other options as far as what they can pursue.”
GRID Alternatives is a national nonprofit with an office in Chico serving the greater North State area, from Oroville to Redding. In its three years here, the organization has completed 350 solar projects for low-income homeowners.
GRID is the program manager for a state initiative to provide solar energy to low-income homeowners. That program was initially set to expire this year, but was just extended through 2021. The extension will expand the number of clients it can serve by opening some windows of eligibility. In order to qualify for the Single-family Affordable Solar Homes Program, applicants must earn 80 percent or less of the median income for their area. In Butte County, that’s about $47,000 for a family of four.
Bringing the environmental and financial benefits of solar to low-income households is not GRID’s only goal. Its mission is very much tied to education as well as opening doors for both homeowners and those in search of jobs.
“The solar industry is new, and it’s growing rapidly,” explained Hilary Tellesen, workforce program manager for GRID. “Because it’s a blossoming industry, we have the ability to shape what it looks like.”
One area in which they saw an opportunity was getting women involved in the industry. “Typically, the people who go into construction are men,” Tellesen said. So in 2014, GRID—whose CEO is a woman—and solar energy company SunEdison teamed up to create the Women in Solar initiative. The program aims to get more women like the UNR students, all members of their school’s Women in Science and Engineering program, involved in the solar industry.
“I’m super into activism when it comes to both people and the environment,” said Bailey Watkins, a freshman at UNR studying biochemistry and women’s studies. “With this, we’re installing solar, which helps the environment, and we’re doing it for people who need it.”
For the alternative spring break program, UNR sponsored Watkins’ and her fellow students’ trip to Chico. The first part of the week was spent learning about the process in classrooms and networking with Chico State’s Society of Women Engineers. Then they went out into the field, installing panels on two homes in Chico. Each job took two days—longer than a commercial job, Casey admitted, but the students were learning as they worked. This was the second group to spend a week in Chico, and the only one made up of all women, which Watkins found inspiring.
“For one, if you also have women in the field, you have more people doing these fantastic things,” she said with bubbly enthusiasm. “Everyone should have the opportunity to do what they want to do.”
Tellesen agreed. She pointed to the fact that March is Women’s History Month as a perfect time to highlight this program, which is more than just something to give the organization good PR. “Our CEO is a woman. She went to a solar conference and she was the only woman in the room. So she thought, ‘There are plenty of great, intelligent women out there—why aren’t they in solar?’”
Another, newer initiative, also a partnership between GRID and SunEdison, is called RISE (Realizing an Inclusive Solar Economy). Its goal is to increase job training and placement for underserved communities, where job prospects are often bleak.
“We want to offer good people good work,” Tellesen said. “We can offer additional options when it comes to someone wanting to improve their life, to get into the workforce.”