The City of Pittsburg baked in the springtime sun as Steven Chan sought shelter underneath a sprawling, leafy tree. Along with eleven other students from the University of California, Berkeley, Steven was spending day two of his spring break week not on the beach, but rather installing solar for low-income families and translating classroom concepts to real solutions as a part of GRID Bay Area’s Solar Spring Break program.
"I joined Solar Spring Break because I wanted hands-on experience working with solar as a means of serving others, as opposed to in my classrooms where I learned about solar as an engineering concept,” Steven said. As a fourth-year Engineering Physics major, Steven realized that the bottleneck in the transition to clean energy was not due to a shortcoming in technology, but rather due to lack of access. Believing in GRID’s mission to make renewable energy technology accessible in underserved communities, Steven decided to serve as the team leader for Berkeley’s sixth Solar Spring Break with GRID in Oakland.
During their service-learning week with GRID, students installed 10 kW DC of solar for two low-income families in the City of Pittsburg. Over their lifetimes, these systems will collectively prevent 195 tons of greenhouse gas emissions and generate over $98,000 in energy savings. For one of the solar recipients, Kriston Findley, these impacts are truly life-saving: “I’ve been recovering from a back surgery which forced me to retire,” she said, “and my husband relies on oxygen.” With solar now reducing her electricity bill by 90%, she can direct her energy savings toward medical bills and college tuition savings for her son.
In addition to the install days, students toured a utility-scale solar site in Richmond and met with a panel of Berkeley alumni working at SunPower. To cap off the week, the students volunteered at the historic gardens on Alcatraz Island, where they learned about sustainable gardening practices and toured the island, which few know is also one of the nation’s largest solar microgrids. Even the ferries between the island and San Francisco are solar-powered!
“Solar Spring Break really opened my eyes to the intersection between my passion for solar and making real tangible change in people's lives,” said Elizabeth Shehter, a first-year student at Berkeley. “It also allowed me to learn a lot about myself and what makes me excited to get up in the morning!”
Indeed, each day presented a new opportunity to learn by doing, and to better understand how the solar industry can advance environmental justice efforts. "Solar Spring Break helped me truly understand how renewable energy can change the lives of individuals – whether it's by saving on energy costs or by preventing further emissions that cause public health problems,” added Dianne Chung, who plans to join Doctors Without Borders upon graduation. “Now, I find myself with ears piqued at any discussion regarding clean energy or environmental equity – a degree of mindfulness that I'm grateful to have gained from this experience.” By entering the solar industry with an environmental justice lens, this next generation of leaders, decision-makers, and advocates will help realize a transition to clean energy that truly includes everyone.
Back in Pittsburg, as Steven awaited the call from the roof team for the next solar panel, a familiar jingle filled his ears as an ice-cream truck rounded the corner. “Does anyone want a popsicle?” he asked as everyone on site raised a hand. It was, after all, spring break, and what better way to appreciate the power of the sun than by enjoying a cold, sweet treat?
Special thanks to Jeff Eyet, whose generous sponsorship made this year’s Solar Spring Break possible! To see more photos from this group’s week of service-learning, visit GRID’s Flickr album here.