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SEPA staff go up on the roof: Solar transformation in East Baltimore

By K Kaufmann
Photos by Himali Shah

For Hattie Gross, 92, the eight solar panels recently installed on the roof of her brick rowhouse in a low-income neighborhood in East Baltimore mean hundreds of dollars of savings on annual energy bills.

“My grandmother has lived in this house at least 50 years,” said Cynthia Gross, who is Hattie’s primary caretaker. “I see my grandmother’s gas and electric bills, and they are high. Given she is on a fixed income, we needed to do something to make this house more efficient.”

The install on the Gross house is one of 10 now underway as part of a pilot project the solar nonprofit GRID Alternatives is doing in East Baltimore. Based in California, GRID is dedicated to bringing solar power to low-income communities and to diversifying the solar workforce by expanding training opportunities for women, minorities and other underrepresented groups.

Read more about GRID’s launch of the East Baltimore installs here.

Hattie Gross’s new solar panels come on top of energy-efficient upgrades Cynthia helped arrange for her grandmother’s house through another community program. The combination of efficiency plus solar will make her grandmother more comfortable, physically and financially, Cynthia Gross said.

GRID completed the installs on the Gross house and one a few doors down with help from a crew of volunteers from the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). Both systems are around 2 kilowatts each and will save the residents an estimated $300-$500 a year, depending on their electric use, according to Bill Freeman, GRID’s Development Director for the Mid-Atlantic region.

Grid Install 4
SEPA staffers Jennifer Szaro (front), Anita Bonner and Dan Chwastyk lift a solar panel into place at the GRID Alternatives installation in East Baltimore. 

GRID’s own crew in Baltimore shows the real-life results of the organization’s efforts to diversify the solar workforce. Solar Installation Supervisor Salvador Torres is originally from Los Angeles, where his family has long been in the automotive industry, selling cars. He wanted “to change it up, get out of the auto industry, do something for the environment,” he said.

He started volunteering with GRID as part of a solar training course he took at a community college in Los Angeles. After completing the course, he worked for a commercial installer for a year to get his skill level up before returning to GRID as a paid employee and heading East when the organization opened a Mid-Atlantic office in Washington, D.C. last year.

The best part of his job, he said, is working with volunteers to develop their skills.

GRID Install 2
GRID Supervisor Salvador Torres tests a solar panel.

“Just to see that kind of progress, to see them go out and get a (solar) job; there’s nothing better,” he said. “That changes their whole outlook on life.”

Marc Spohn is one of Torres’ former volunteers, now a Construction Fellow in GRID’s SolarCorps program, a one-year program to help those interested in careers in the solar industry build job skills. Fellows are paid and receive benefits, Freeman said.

Before hooking up with GRID, Spohn had spent 25 years of his life in and out of the California prison system, struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and, in his own words, wasting a lot of opportunities.

GRID Install 1
Marc Spohn (second from right) with SEPA staffers (from left) Ruth Hupart, Brad Benton, Ryan Edge and (far right) Charisse Raysor.

Now eight years clean and sober, Spohn began volunteering with GRID, like Torres, as part of a solar training course. He has gotten a lot of encouragement from Torres, he said, and eventually was hired to come East and work for GRID’s Mid-Atlantic office.

“I like giving back,” Spohn said. “This company in particular, their mission is making solar accessible to people. These people are invisible as far as society is concerned.”

Spohn spent a day up on Gross’s roof, working with the SEPA volunteers, for whom the project was a chance to get out from behind their desks and computers and get some real-time experience on the nuts and bolts of the industry.

“It was good to use tools — in my head, to connect every wire, so I know exactly how it works,” said Research Analyst Ryan Edge.

The challenge for Anita Bonner, SEPA’s Operations and Finance Associate, was suiting up in a heavy harness and clambering up the two-story high ladder to get on the roof.

“I’m afraid of heights, and I conquered it twice,” she said.

Bridging the energy divide

Started in Northern California in 2001, GRID’s mission is two-pronged, focused on bringing the economic and social benefits of both solar and solar jobs to low-income and other underserved communities. SEPA President and CEO Julia Hamm is on the Board of Directors of the organization’s Mid-Atlantic office.

The GRID install in Baltimore was created through the kind of public-private partnerships the organization has become adept at building. The project’s primary funding comes from a $90,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, a private nonprofit that focuses exclusively on programs to improve education, economic development, health and human services in the state of Maryland. Much of GRID’s equipment comes from corporate sponsors.

Lynn Heller, the Abell Foundation’s vice president, said that the opening of GRID’s Mid-Atlantic office coincided with a foundation initiative exploring possibilities for bringing solar to low-income communities in Baltimore.

Read the Abell Foundation’s report on bringing solar to Baltimore’s low-income areas here.

The lower an individual’s or family’s income is, the more of it that goes to utility bills, Heller said. Based on 2013 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average for household expenditures on utilities, fuel and other services is about 7.3 percent. But households with pre-tax earnings of $20,000-$30,000 spend close to 10 percent on these energy-related expenses, compared to 5.5 percent for households earning $100,000 or more.

“We already have a pretty significant energy divide,” she said, noting that federal and state incentives for solar tend to be targeted at those who can afford the upfront costs of a rooftop system.

The residential installs GRID is doing here are part of a larger initiative that includes a city-funded solar-plus-storage installation at the area’s community center, called The Door, Heller said. Research is also underway to find longer-term, sustainable financing models to allow more area residents to go solar.

And now that people in the area have seen the panels go up on a few of their neighbors’ roofs, they are asking questions about how they might be able to get a system —something they hadn’t previously thought possible, Gross said.

Heller acknowledged that some people may be skeptical of installing solar in East Baltimore, saying it is a diversion from the area’s more pressing problems.

“Some folks may ask, ‘Why are you focusing on solar? Isn’t that a luxury problem?’” she said. “We want to make sure it doesn’t remain a luxury and make sure low-income energy bills go down. And finally there’s climate change. We’re all going to have to do a lot more, well-off people and low-income people.

“It’s not one economic group,” she said. “It’s everyone.”

K Kaufmann is SEPA’s Communications Manager. She can be reached at [email protected].

Himali Shah is SEPA’s Membership Associate. She can be reached at [email protected]