Expanding access to solar in the Mid-Atlantic

By John David Baldwin on October 1, 2015

Distributed solar energy can help families save money and create good jobs. The nonprofit GRID Alternatives has worked to bring these benefits to underserved communities since 2001. Their model is to install solar PV on low-income homes and to train low-income individuals for solar industry jobs. The organization started in California, but since 2012, the organization has expanded across the country and even internationally to Nicaragua. In the latter half of 2014, GRID Alternatives established a new office, based in the nation’s capital, serving the Mid-Atlantic area (the District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware).

In September of 2014, GRID Alternatives officially launched the Mid-Atlantic office by putting up solar panels on ten Habitat for Humanity homes in the economically-challenged Ivy City area of Northeast Washington. The dedication brought together officials from the EPA, HUD, the Council on Environmental Quality, as well as community leaders and other community members, partner organizations and numerous volunteers to help install the panels. The government officials expressed the hope that the Ivy City project might serve as a model for similar communities across the U.S.

“Expanding nationally and having a presence in D.C. allows us to connect with our federal partners, such as the EPA, HUD, DOE, DOL and others, more effectively,” said Nicole Steele, Executive Director of GRID Alternatives’ Mid-Atlantic office. “Without a doubt, having this local presence helps us work together by designing local pilot programs and having leaders see firsthand what we do.”

Erica Mackie, GRID Alternatives CEO, remarked recently in an interview that one of the reasons for the opening of the mid-Atlantic office is to serve as a “showcase to the nation.” Steele concurred with this view, noting that GRID’s decade of experience in installing solar, as well as in training people to install it, has made them experts in that field.

“With this knowledge, experience, and [our] established partnerships, GRID can offer an important voice in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “In order to establish a tangible presence in the nation’s capital, GRID knew there needed to be a local office to facilitate conversations and demonstrate what GRID does best.”

During the event at Ivy City, the organization utilized the services of a local volunteer organization, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, both to help install the panels and to further the young volunteers’ training in that skill. Steele did not see this as distinct from the work with volunteers that GRID carries out elsewhere. “Our objective is to expand our job training partnership program and offer a comprehensive educational experience to all of our over 22,500 volunteers.”

Steele further explained that in the Mid-Atlantic region there are one million low-income households and therefore is a substantial need for an organization such as GRID. “The market-rate solar industry is also growing in the region,” she added, “which complements our job training program as well.”

“The main hurdle to success in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Steele concluded, “is developing a sustainable, scalable solution to financing access to solar at a cost reasonable to the low-income participants we serve.”