Wire we smiling?

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March 28, 2014

by Peter Schaab, Volunteer and Training Coordinator, GRID Alternatives Central Coast

wonderful article has already been written about some of the first student teams that have participated in GRID Alternatives’ Solar Spring Break, but we thought we’d share some of our personal experiences and adventures with the team from the University of Vermont. From March 2nd to the 7th, seven amazing students brought with them such a strong wave of enthusiasm, curiosity, and optimism that will not soon be forgotten at the Central Coast office.

The week began with a late night arrival at Morro Bay State Park Campground; their home for the week. Even though everyone had been traveling by plane and car for nearly 20 hours, many stayed up to get acquainted around the campfire. We had feared that the soggy ground and moist air from a recent storm would dampen their spirits, but all we heard was “it’s so warm out here!” Turns out a humid 62 degrees is a very welcome respite from 15 degrees…below freezing. The campfire conversation that went well into that night was the first of many. Instantly, we knew we had a good group.

Morning brought a beautiful sunrise, a comment from Rosie that the campground somewhat resembled Jurassic Park, and frustrated rock-skipping lessons on Morro Bay with our own resident staff champion, Anton. Amazingly, we did not see a wink of fatigue in anyone’s eyes. This group was ready and excited to explore their strange, dinosaurian surroundings. At the office, after brief introductions to the rest of the GRID staff, it was off to orientation. I believe it will forever hold the record as the longest volunteer orientation I’ve ever conducted at just shy of four hours. A thousand questions kept me on my toes. And these weren’t simple or basic-level questions. They were questions that demonstrated at the very least, a passion for environmentalism, and at most, a vast understanding of clean energy issues. I felt out of my league on some topics, but for others, it was exciting to engage an audience beyond the standard orientation topics.

Day 2 was where the passion would be tested. Would they love applying action to theory, or would the not-so-trivial labor slow them down? Donovan and Dan, the Construction team for that install, were pleased to tell me it was the former. The pictures we received during the install showed a team working hard while having fun. In fact, when the normal work-stop time rolled around at 4:30, the team pressed on for another hour and a half to get the job done before sunset. While there was too little sunlight left in the day to properly commission the Alvarez Family’s 3kW system and see their electric meter run backward, I’m happy to say that when it was commissioned the next day it performed flawlessly. Not bad for your first solar array.

Wednesday morning began with Cassidy giving the team an overview of the design process for the system they would install on Thursday and Friday. An hour and a half on that subject barely scratches the surface, but it was a glimpse into the myriad of considerations and factors that are a part of every project our Construction team does. A home-cooked barbeque featuring a slightly offbeat variety of local foods provided a brief pause before setting out on the next adventure: to the world’s largest photovoltaic solar power plant at Topaz Solar Farms. Few people have had a chance to see up close a project of such significant scale. Maria Kelly and Gary Hood at MidAmerican Solar gave them the grand tour. When I looked back to take dopey pictures in the truck, all I saw were smiles; no bored looks or any distracted gazes into smartphones. Perhaps one of the highlights was not the dizzying view of millions of solar panels or the rapid precision of the post drivers, but rather a chance encounter with two of the projects’ biologists. To hear a grown man say how he danced and sang in the middle of a field when he discovered a rare species of fairy shrimp was to question everything I’ve ever assumed about a “tough guy.” The day ended with wildlife of a slightly larger (and maybe stranger) kind when the team ventured to San Simeon to visit the famous Elephant Seals. All together, the pictures from that day paint what I think is a quintessential Californian tableau: bold ideas and beautiful nature.

For the next day, the team started an array from scratch. It’s one thing to get on a roof and finish an array already begun earlier (as the team had done on Tuesday), but it’s quite another to come up to a blank roof and envision and execute a project with nothing more than a SketchUp drawing and a seemingly random assortment of parts. No one was ever daunted by the challenge. This was the day when the puns made their debut: “We Con Duit!” and “Wire we so cool?” We’d be a little sad if at least one of those puns don’t make it on some GRID marketing material down the road. The completion of the day’s construction activities didn’t mean the pace of the day was slowing. The team and a few folks from the office drove down to San Luis Obispo to wander around the sprawling farmer’s market and get a little more of a taste of Central Coast culture. Flavors ranged from “stinky” carrots, to ridiculously juicy strawberries, to the sweet memory of long-lost birch beer, all the way to the stomach-curdling spectacle of Bubblegum Alley. The real fun happened down by the creek when Els challenged Justin, our Outreach Coordinator, to an impromptu race around it. Despite the fact that he shamelessly cheated by cutting halfway through the creek, she still beat him handily. Not one to have the honor of GRID (and of course, by extension, all of California) tarnished, I reluctantly accepted the challenge to race her myself. Feet-a-flying, I quickly realized the un-wisdom of running along wet river rock. That said (and not to gloat or anything…okay, maybe a little), I still managed to eke out a narrow victory…but not before getting soaked up to my knees. Thank goodness for the fire back at the camp.

The final day began bittersweet. The team hiked up to the top of Black Hill in Morro Bay to take in a beautiful panorama of the coast colored by the best sunrise yet that week. In Greenfield, the team came together one more time to finish the 2.7kW array for the Gonzales Family; and ahead of schedule no less! In a span of a week, the beginners had become the masters. At the farewell barbeque back at the office, Michelle asked each one of the GRID staff what their goals in life were. The answers from each of us reminded me of why it is such a unique joy to work at a place like GRID. No matter what background we’ve come from, each one of us is working together to build what I like to call the “optimistic future.” It’s a future that’s a little cleaner, a little fairer, and a lot brighter for many who may have at one time lost their sense of optimism. And seeing the students realize firsthand that there are organizations in existence right now like GRID that make such a positive and immediate difference helped redouble the optimism.

Those seven intrepid voyagers from Vermont left almost as soon as they arrived, but impactful events don’t have to be long in duration. The short time they spent with us were the best of my career at GRID so far and some of the most fun in my entire life. Many others in the office share a similar feeling. So, wire we smiling from ear-to-ear here in Atascadero? Because Solar Spring Break accomplished its goals to inspire and enlighten…not just the students, but the teachers as well.

To Michelle, Rosie, Els, Victoria, Isabel, Daniela, and Ken, our deepest thanks for sharing your amazing energy with us to help harness more energy for all.

The University of Vermont team also fundraised thousands of dollars to help build the solar arrays for the Alvarez and Gonzales families. Help them reach their goal of $5,000 (and beyond) by donating today!