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Bringing Solar to Bay Area Low-Income Communities

Worldchanging SF local blogger, Gwen Johnson

Solar energy and energy efficiency are great ways to lower monthly energy bills while saving the environment, but the upfront investment is still often prohibitively expensive. This is especially true for families with limited income, though they tend to get hit the hardest by rising energy prices. GRID Alternatives, a Bay Area nonprofit, has created an impressively effective program that gets solar power onto the homes of low-income families at what seems like no cost.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what they do: They provide free design and free installation services – all the homeowner is responsible for is the cost of the equipment. The solar panels and inverters (usually obtained with discounts) are paid for with PG&E rebates and low/no interest loans (all of which they help apply for). The labor is provided by professional installers that donate their time and volunteers that they train (I’ve sat in on the training, but have yet to be volunteer labor). And homeowners participate in the installation, gaining potentially valuable job skills.

Once the systems are installed, these families stand to save money each month because the loan payment is less than their reduction in energy costs.

GRID Alternatives has facilitated projects in Oakland, San Francisco, San Mateo, Pleasanton and Livermore and get donor support from corporations like Google, PG&E and The Body Shop Foundation, and public agencies such as the San Francisco Department of the Environment, the City of San Mateo, Pleasanton and Livermore. In the past 6 months alone, and with mostly part-time staff, they’ve managed to install 22 systems on Habitat for Humanity and other low-income developments.

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A new forum has just opened on Alternative Energy, particularly on the easiest pathway to transition to a Hydrogen-Economy Solar-Powered (H2-PV) within ten years. What is different is the assumption that PV solar panels are not as hard to make as made out to be: the technology is already so old that the highly successful patents have now expired. It's been nearly 50 years since the first commercially produced solar cells and the technology is so old that it is already exhibits in museums. It's not the "energy of the future" but the stuff grandpa made, except made faster and better and cheaper now.

The premise is small to medium businesses can enter the field if we hammer out the open-source design of "Model-T" basic furnace operations and see that they can be built and start-up operations at the cost of an SUV (which is far more complicated technology and nobody argues that SUVs are impossible for small-to-medium sized businesses to own and operate).

The initial forums are proposed to be:
* H2-PV Hydrogen Economy, Solar Photovoltaics
Hydrogen by the TONS, PV by the ACRES

* Palaces For The People
Palaces, owner-built 21st century ecologically-compatibly luxury lifestyles

* Electromagnetic Casting PV
How plenty "Good Enough" Photovoltaic Solar Energy systems can be made by ordinary people using Public Domain technology.

* Novel Wind Energy Towers
A cheap adaptation of Savonius design wind tower.

The link is

In order to support "Truth-in-debates", over 500 patents from the USPTO office are being mirrored onsite in a wiki -- this uploading and organizing process will likely take a month to complete, and volunteers can help if they want. The new wiki already has the beginning of nearly 200 pages woven together (although many are just placeholder-stubs waiting for filling in the details). The entire website has about 1,000 megabytes of data, plus there's enough more to fill a DVD-ROM.

Separate registrations are required by the different softwares running the wiki and the BBS Forums. Only registered members can post although anybody can drop by and read anything. Registration requires a valid email box to receive confirmation validations -- no spam will be sent by the website, only opt-in lists someday might be offered.

Hopefully there is material for all knowledge levels, but the emphasis will be moving on to technical details which are beyond the understanding of people who don't invest in their own technical education improvements.

The US Patents Library is a teaching institution dedicated to making a trade with inventors: In exchange for teaching the full and complete details of your invention so that anybody knowledgeable in that art can make it, the Patent grants a limited -time monopoly to the inventor for his/her exclusive profiting. The inventors already got their reward, now the public gets to reward itself with the expired-patent public domain technology that anyone can use without restrictions or paying royalties.

Ordinary people can make PV in equipments they can build or have machine-shop build for them. The market is ready to support 50,000 businesses going into making PV for the next ten years, and the current market prices will make early entrants into the field into millionaires.

These are the discussions that should be happening in 2007 as we move to Energy Independence.

Posted by: Lion Kuntz on 11 Dec 06

On the subject of solar for low-income communities, see Solar hot water in Wikipedia. There's text and a link there re cheap solar hot water systems in China: "basic models start at around 1,500 yuan (US$190), much cheaper than in Western countries."

Posted by: Chriswaterguy on 13 Dec 06

Most poor people and quite a few of the middle-class in the Bay Area are renters. What can we do about providing solar to people in this situation? The landlord owns the roof, but the renter gets the PG&E bill. The landlord has no vested interest in providing attic insulation or other energy saving measures because it is all expense and hassle and no gain for them.

Posted by: Diane Hume on 14 Dec 06



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