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Solar panels installed on low-income homes for free as GRID Alternatives comes to Colorado

Big photos below.
Big photos below.

GRID Alternatives, a California-based nonprofit group that works on renewable energy, is launching a national expansion plan to bring solar panels to homes across the country -- and its first stop is in the Denver metro area, which has a long and complicated history with alternative energy research.

GRID (the acronym stands for "Generating Renewable Ideas for Development Alternatives") is installing twelve solar electric systems for low-income houses in Lakewood this week, making it currently the only program of its kind in the state. The group, which will open a full-time Colorado office in 2013, identified twelve homes -- built by the Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver -- that would benefit from solar panels. The installations began yesterday and will continue through September 29.

Volunteers for GRID installing solar panels
Volunteers for GRID installing solar panels
Courtesy of Julian Foley

The systems will save each family an average of $30,000 over the [corrected] systems' anticipated thirty-year lifespan, and GRID estimates that the combination of all twelve will prevent the release of around 1,300 tons of carbon dioxide -- the equivalent of planting 30,000 trees.

One unique element of the program: The systems are installed at no cost to the homeowners, since GRID has seed funding from Wells Fargo, along with partnerships from two manufacturers that have made major panel donations this year. GRID is also working with some state agencies in Colorado on potential funding for additional projects in 2012.

"Low-income families pay a higher percentage of their income on electricity than anybody else," says Julian Foley, GRID's communication manager. "They are extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in electricity prices."

The twelve families are considered low-income based on Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, standards of income, says Foley, who is in town this week helping to install the panels.

Part of GRID's model involves relying on volunteers and job trainees to actually install the systems; the organization handles all aspects of installation and registration. GRID is now partnering with a group called Veterans Green Jobs, which helps connect vets to clean-tech employment, Foley says.

"We've been working on this model in California, and we feel like it's really ready to be used in other places and can really be effective," Foley says.

The national expansion beginning in Colorado is supported by a five-year, $2 million grant from Wells Fargo.

"We looked at a bunch of different states -- Arizona, New Mexico, New Jersey," she says. "For us, Colorado is a really natural fit. There's a strong solar industry there...and abundant sunshine."

Continue for more on the installation project and GRID Alternatives.

This program arrives in Colorado after a particularly rough summer for solar manufacturing. Loveland-based Abound Solar filed for bankruptcy in June and General Electric PrimeStar, another solar company in Colorado, announced that it would be laying off seventy employees and putting plans for an Aurora plant on hold for at least eighteen months.

GRID Alternatives client Gustavo Ramirez helps install solar panels on his neighbors roof.
GRID Alternatives client Gustavo Ramirez helps install solar panels on his neighbors roof.
Courtesy of Julian Foley

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar told us in July there's no reason to be concerned about the strength of the solar industry in the larger scheme of the renewable energy industry. And this kind of installation effort -- with a nonprofit group planning to invest more long-term in the state -- is certainly a sign of the continuing importance of solar in Colorado.

In addition to helping families financially -- the systems typically meet 75 to 90 percent of electricity needs -- these kinds of installations pump money back into the economy, says Foley.

"It's really just a huge relief for those families. They can spend money on other things they need.... That's spending money that goes back to the community. Most of those dollars end up going back to the local economy," she says.

Foley adds: "We are giving people access to a clean technology who otherwise wouldn't have it.... We really think of our work as environmental justice."

GRID at the Lakewood sites yesterday.
GRID at the Lakewood sites yesterday.
Courtesy of Julian Foley

Individuals interested in getting involved can e-mail Colorado@gridalternatives.org.

More from our Environment archive: "James Ernst cited in case prompted by bike-rage video that went viral"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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