GRID Alternatives Brings Solar to Baltimore’s Underserved One Panel at a Time

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Volunteers installed the solar panels on Fenwick's Baltimore row home. GRID supervisors have trained 368 solar volunteers in the Mid-Atlantic since 2014.
GRID’s supervisors trained solar volunteers at the Fenwick solar installation. Solar installers can average $24 per hour.

Genevieve Fenwick lives in a classic row home in Baltimore’s Belair-Edison neighborhood. Living on a fixed income, Fenwick said, “I’m the last person on earth you’d expect to have 12 solar panels powering my row home.”

But thanks to GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit bringing renewable energy to underserved communities, the solar panels on Fenwick’s roof will soon be turning sunlight into electricity. What’s more impressive is GRID’s workforce training model. Of the 77 GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic installations since 2014, over 368 people have been trained as solar installers.  A win for Genevieve Fenwick, the planet, and Maryland’s labor market.

Started in 2004 in California, GRID Alternatives has expanded to Colorado and New York’s tri-state region. GRID expanded to DC, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware in 2014. With funding from foundations, government agencies and donors, GRID provides solar energy to low income communities. The solar installations are staffed by volunteers taking part in GRID’s job training program. Since 2004, GRID has trained nearly 30,000 volunteers in solar.

Show me the money? The sun

Volunteers Emma Washa and John Griffin working on Fenwick’s new heat-reflecting “cool roof” installed by Baltimore Energy Challenge.

The solar industry is exploding. A worldwide transition to renewables coupled with government financial incentives has driven solar market demand. Solar prices have fallen 66 percent since 2010.  The U.S. solar industry is expected to grow 15 percent in 2016 to about 240,000 workers. 

In Maryland, the O’Malley administration’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (the same bill Hogan vetoed in 2016) sparked serious solar investment with over 167 MW of solar energy installed (about 50,000 homes worth). Maryland boasts 194 solar companies who report that job demand is strong. It’s so strong, in fact, 87 percent of Maryland solar firms report difficulty in finding skilled workers.

“I called the Mayor’s Office”

Homeowner Genevieve Fenwick and GRID supervisor Marc Spohn. Keep an eye out for our upcoming feature about Marc's rise from inmate to solar supervisor.
Homeowner Genevieve Fenwick and GRID supervisor Marc Spohn (in blue shirt).

We’ve been reporting on a really cool trend in Baltimore – an improved collaboration between federal, state, and city government, nonprofits, and private businesses who work together to solve key issues. GRID’s Fenwick solar project illustrates this “green collaboration” in action. 

In March 2015, Fenwick’s heater died during a cold snap. “I was desperate. It was really cold and we had no heat. I called the Mayor’s office and asked for help.” said Fenwick. The Mayor’s Office referred me to Baltimore City’s LIGHT program. I called LIGHT on a Friday, visited their office the next Monday, and one week later a new heater was installed.”

LIGHT is Baltimore City’s main intake call center for the many low income grant-based programs available to city residents.

LIGHT then connected Fenwick to the Baltimore Energy Challenge (BEC). A collaboration between Baltimore City, Civic Works and Baltimore Community Foundation, the BEC helps homeowners and businesses reduce their energy use by at least 15 percent through energy efficiency measures.

Once Fenwick had taken steps to improve her home’s energy efficiency (lighting, water heater insulation and a new cool roof), BEC then connected her with the GRID Alternatives team. BEC works with GRID to identify Baltimore City low income homeowners that may benefit from solar energy. 

The final result is that Fenwick’s row home is now heated by an energy efficient heater. Her home uses less electricity overall, and her home’s future electricty use will be seriously offset by the clean solar energy generated by her new 12 photovoltaic panels. “My monthly BGE bill is about $130, and it’s expected to be cut in half with the solar. I feel blessed by the support everyone has shown me. It’s been an amazing experience.” said Fenwick.

Energy policy is local

Nicole Steele, GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic Executive Director explains why Maryland is a solid market for their model, “State and local-level regulations drive solar markets. Laws supporting net metering, Renewable Portfolio Standards, tax incentives, and third party ownership laws shape a state’s solar industry. Maryland has traditionally been a strong solar market.” 

Though Governor Hogan’s recent and unexpected veto of an updated RenewablePortfolio Standard (RPS) has thrown a wrench in Maryland’s solar industry. Hogan’s RPS veto and the RPS will surely be a hot topic in the 2017 Maryland General Assembly.

If you’re interested in learning more about the GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic job training program contact GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic. GRID is also looking for income-qualified home sites. 

Also, check out Baltimore Fishbowl’s energy efficiency article explaining how you can access Maryland’s no-cost and low-cost energy efficiency programs.

Like Genevieve Fenwick, you too can reduce your energy use, save money and lower your carbon footprint. 

Even greenlaurel got up on the roof and helped GRID install Genevieve Fenwick's 3.2 kW solar system.
Even greenlaurel got up on Fenwick’s roof and helped install her 3.2 kW solar system. Keep an eye out for our profile on GRID’s supervisor Marc Spohn, pictured above. Green jobs transform more than just energy, they can change lives.

Laurel Peltier
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