Veteran Ben Kavoussi stands in front of his house which was fitted with solar panels thanks to the nonprofit called GRID Alternatives. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

City government

Nonprofit helps low-income families connect to solar energy

By From page A1 | December 11, 2013

Ben Kavoussi always has been energy-conscious, but at the moment, the Persian-born Davis resident cannot afford to install the solar panels that would match his house to his values.

Living off his student loans while he studies to become a physician’s assistant at UC Davis, Kavoussi doesn’t have the discretionary income needed to fund that type of work.

Lucky for him, there’s a nonprofit out there that’s willing to provide and install the solar equipment, at no cost.

“They came and knocked on my door,” Kavoussi said. They said they needed “to find out if (I was) qualified to get panels installed. … I said, ‘Why not? Let’s talk about it,’ and she looked at my income and she said it looks like I qualify.”

A few months later, Kavoussi watched workers affix nine new solar panels onto his roof, without spending a dime.

The solar upgrade, which happened last month, was the handiwork of a nonprofit called GRID Alternatives, an East Bay outfit that leverages private and corporate donations, grant funding and donated equipment to install solar systems for low-income households.

The service opens a window to solar power for those like Kavoussi, who normally would not be able to afford such technology. The program also helps out folks with their monthly bottom lines.

Total installation costs, including equipment and labor, for a solar panel installation can run anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000. It’s no wonder that finding a way into solar can be difficult.

“We provide the benefits of renewable energy to low-income families and to other communities that would otherwise not have access to it on the market,” said Rebekah Casey, GRID regional development officer, adding, “The reason why we do solar for affordable housing is that, obviously it has benefits to people who are trying to make ends meet.”

GRID customizes its solar systems to qualified households based on the amount of kW the homes produce, Casey says.

The solar panels will generate between 75 and 85 percent of the home’s total energy output, and then GRID provides incentives that help families reach up to 100 percent savings through other energy-efficiency measures.

That means savings of anywhere between 75 percent and 100 percent on energy bills once GRID has stepped in.

“I was paying a couple hundred (dollars) per year,” Kavoussi said. “I don’t have the numbers; I know my bill was going to be less than $5 a month. It’s a dramatic reduction in price.”

GRID also provides instruction on how to troubleshoot the solar system should the equipment ever malfunction. The nonprofit includes a 10-year warranty on the labor and a 10- to 25-year warranty on the equipment as well.

An individual or family can qualify for GRID’s program if their home is subject to an affordable housing deed restriction. Further, the household must be considered low-income by the state. In Davis, a family of four earning less than $61,500 is eligible for the program.

Also eligible are those who have been accepted into Davis’ Home Improvement Loan program, which offers funding to homeowners such as senior citizens or the disabled who need help making their homes more accessible.

But the nonprofit’s services don’t end with pairing low-income families and households with the costly equipment it takes to knock down monthly energy bills.

GRID also provides a no-cost training service and volunteer program for people who want to get involved in the industry.

Similar to Habitat for Humanity, all installations are performed by community service volunteers or job trainees under the supervision of certified staff.

Two weeks ago, students from Woodland Community College’s Math Science and Engineering Achievement Program and members of the Green Tech Academy in Sacramento were on hand helping GRID and Kavoussi with the installation.

“While they were installing (the system, GRID staff) were explaining the process because they were training the people,” Kavoussi said. “You had a couple of kids, it was pretty smooth, they were training them and showing them; it was very instructional.”

That type of business model also helps the nonprofit, which recently expanded nationally, keep its costs under control.

The city has dedicated $70,000 to GRID’s efforts in Davis from its Community Development Block Grant/Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME) funding that it receives from the federal government each year. The city received about $300,000 from that program this year, according to Danielle Foster, city housing and human services superintendent.

GRID then matched that $70,000 four times over through state programs and its other donor sources, and Casey says that total will allow GRID to “solarize” 15 homes in Davis by the end of the year.

Mayor Joe Krovoza, who attended the installation at Kavoussi’s house two weeks ago, commended city staff for finding this program for the residents of Davis.

“The programs of GRID Alternatives in Davis are bringing the savings of renewable energy to our veterans, the disabled and others,” Krovoza said in a statement. “Our city staff has been fantastic in facilitating more and more programs for our residents, which also helps Davis meet our Climate Action Plan goals.

“This is yet another example of citizens capturing the benefits of low-carbon, low-cost power.”

GRID is still looking for applications for the program. To apply, contact the nonprofit at 866-921-4696 or [email protected].

Since its inception in 2004, GRID has saved families $100 million on energy bills, prevented 315,000 tons of greenhouse gases from being emitted and trained 14,000 volunteers. The nonprofit has installed solar systems on 3,700 homes.

— Reach Tom Sakash at [email protected] or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash

Tom Sakash

Tom Sakash covers the city beat for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at [email protected], (530) 747-8057 or @TomSakash.
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