Conversation with Tim Sears, Program Director and Co-Founder, GRID Alternatives


Interview by Willi Paul

Does GRID have similar approaches / values as Bay Localize? (See: Visit PlanetShifter.com Event Circle 6, Interview with Aaron Lehmner, Bay Localize http://www.planetshifter.com/node/350)

GRID Alternatives shares the goal of Bay Localize “To increase community livability and local resilience while decreasing fossil fuel use.” GRID Alternatives focuses on low-income homeowners, and our approach is to bring together volunteers, job trainees, and the homeowners themselves to install solar electric systems on the homes of families that really need the savings the solar can provide, but would not otherwise be able to able to access it.

Where do you get solar panels from? Who green certifies your technology?

GRID Alternatives is a not-for-profit licensed installer of solar electric systems. We do not manufacture or distribute solar equipment, and we don’t mark up the cost on the equipment we use. We purchase equipment from a variety of suppliers and manufacturers, and whenever possible we try to ensure that this equipment is manufactured in an environmentally responsible manner.

Are there US companies using inferior imported panels?

GRID Alternatives uses only modules approved by the California Energy Commission to receive state incentives, and all modules we use come with a 25 year warranty.

Who is GRID Alternatives competing with in terms of other NPOs? Private businesses?

GRID Alternatives serves homeowners who would not otherwise have the financial means to purchase a solar electric system. We partner with many other non-profit organizations that operate in the same space, but we do not see ourselves as competing with anybody.

Is GRID a sustainable organization? Please define and give us some examples.

GRID Alternatives’ constantly strives to improve our environmental practices (e.g., recycling and composting office waste, encouraging employees to use public transit or bicycles, looking for more environmentally friendly products and intstallation methods). The solar electric systems we install improve the sustainability of our local electric use by offsetting electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.

How is the Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) Program doing? How much energy has been saved on average?

We’re continuing to empower and improve the lives of those living in low-income communities throughout California through the SASH program. On average, a family can save approximately $750 a year on their electric bills, and the systems can produce approximately 4,000 kWh per year. In addition, all our receive energy efficiency audits and qualified clients are enrolled in a free energy efficiency program.

Is GRID about re-wiring communities or families – or both? Or is your approach different for each?

GRID Alternatives affects both families and communities. Families benefit directly from reduced utility bills and often become strong proponents of solar and energy efficiency through the education they receive during and after the solar installation process. We provide communities with tangible examples of how solar can benefit all people, opportunities for communities to come together on a volunteer event. We also partner with job training organizations to provide hands-on installation opportunities to their trainees. This hands-on training is an integral part of the Green Collar Jobs movement.

How is your strategy similar / different in San Diego vs. the Bay Area?

GRID Alternatives uses the same general model throughout the straight. We partner with different local organizations, and we may use different outreach techniques in each region in order to best identify and serve our clients and partners.

Are you receiving many donations via your web site? How are you doing financially in this recession?

We rely largely on donations to operate. GRID Alternatives appreciates every dollar that it receives and uses these dollars wisely to maximize the quantity and quality of the services we provide. Due to the great need and the opportunities associated with local, state, and federal recognition of the role solar can play, GRID Alternatives has been rapidly expanding over the last year. Obviously with the economic recession, everyone has to work harder to raise funds, and we try to make it as easy as possible for our supporters to donate, including an easy on-line donation at http://www.gridalternatives.org/donate.

What are the long-term maintenance issues for clients? How do you assist?

As a California licensed solar installer, we provide all of the services of a regular contractor, including NABCEP-certified staff and a 10 year labor warranty for each solar installation. In addition to that, we offer a layer of social services including community building and education. Our services begin at the point of client outreach and span the system design and engineering, building permits, rebate and utility paperwork, solar installation, and client education.

Please explain GRIDs strategy when working with local job training programs?

We are not a job skills training organization. Rather, we provide a teaching lab in which we offer hands-on experience for individuals who are enrolled in solar installation job training programs throughout California. We set aside a dedicated portion of our solar installations for our partner job training organizations.

What are some successes? Challenges?

Every solar installation we do is both a challenge and a success. Bringing together stakeholders ranging from community volunteers, homeowners, job training organizations, funders, equipment suppliers, local building departments, state incentive programs, energy efficiency providers, and others, while always making sure that all our work meets our high standards of quality and safety, is a big task. Maintaining and improving the processes that allow us to do this work as we continue to grow rapidly is our main challenge.

Where will GRID Alternatives be in 2 years?

In the next 2 years, GRID Alternatives expects to have seven offices serving the entire state of California. Our long-term vision is to build a model of replication in communities across the US and beyond. We’d love for others to be able to replicate our hands-on approach to bring renewable energy to families in need.

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Our volunteers gain valuable skills and experience that they can bring back to their homes, businesses and communities, and help build broad-based, grassroots leadership and support for renewable energy. Bio: Tim Sears, P.E., Program Director and Co-Founder

Tim is a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering, has a technical background in the design and installation of solar electric systems, wind turbines, micro-hydro systems and bio-diesel reactors, and has managed consulting teams of engineers providing comprehensive energy efficiency retrofit recommendations and construction management of projects totaling over $3 million.

Tim is also certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) as a Certified Solar PV Installer.

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