Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
It was easier than I thought.
Over the past year, I’ve written about barriers to accessing solar power, states thwarting solar growth, and the boom in solar jobs, but I’d never witnessed the physical labor needed to start drawing energy from the sun.
To remedy this, I tagged along with a nonprofit that was installing solar on the roof of a house near Benning Road in Southeast Washington, D.C. this May. I came as both observer and participant. This proved a lot more exciting than sitting at a desk all day, but the most surprising thing was just how uncomplicated the process is.
We erected 16 panels on the roof in a leisurely four hours, including a lunch break for some bracingly spicy fried chicken. This was a mostly volunteer workforce, there to hone their installation chops. Working at that rate, and with enough money and demand, a battalion of 400 eager solar crews could conceivably blanket every sunny roof in the District in a year.
Solar panels alone won’t solve climate change—there are other contributing factors, such as emissions from transportation and industry, not to mention complex dynamics to figure out with storing and distributing energy in a solar-dominant grid. Still, seeing that roof go from blank to shiny blue in a handful of hours showed me just how attainable distributed energy has become in the places where we allocate resources to pursue it.
An uneven burden
My host for the day was homeowner Keith Bundy, a 55-year-old man who’s worked security at a nearby Holiday Inn for 29 years. He sees a lot of variation week to week in the hours the hotel needs him, which can make it hard to keep up with recurring monthly expenses.
“At the end of the year it looks good on paper, but when you’re getting bills every month it’s very hard,” he says. “[The work] is not consistent. That Pepco bill, that mortgage every month is consistent.”
He recently paid off his mortgage, but the electricity bill can get up to $300 a month, and if you’re late it rises to $400 or $500, Bundy says. The lion’s share goes to heating and cooling. Bundy is the principal breadwinner for the household of five, and he’ll be nearing retirement in the next five years. To ensure financial stability for the family, he wants to do something about the energy burden. “I don’t want to go into my 60s on a fixed income with increasing electric bills,” he says.
He’d started thinking about rooftop solar a few years back, when Habitat for Humanity helped several households on the block install it. At the time, he didn’t qualify for that program. In March 2016, a crew of brightly dressed folks from a group called GRID Alternatives showed up to put panels on Bundy’s neighbor’s roof. He went over to ask them some questions and learned that he qualified for the program. A few months later, they were here for his house.
GRID Alternatives helps low-income families with a high energy burden get their own solar power. That’s particularly important given that the bottom 20 percent of earners pay a greater share of their income for electricity than any other bracket—seven times more than the top 20 percent. Buying and installing the panels can cost a household thousands of dollars up front, even if it saves more than that in the long-run. GRID circumvents this barrier by using government grants and donations from solar manufacturers to offer the equipment for free, and minimizes their labor costs by offering job training to people who want to enter the solar workforce.
On this particular day, the GRID staff members were training a group of young men and women from the Montgomery County Conservation Corps, a program that combines GED classes with practical job training in environmental industries. The install supervisor got us up to speed on the safety precautions, and then it was time to go.
Up, up, and away
We carried the panels to a staging area in the backyard, where the Bundy family grows a mouthwatering crop of kale, collards, Swiss chard, and assorted potatoes, onions, and lettuces. Each panel weighed 40 to 50 pounds, easy enough for two people to carry. Crew members on the roof dropped a pair of ropes that clipped onto the panel frame, then hoisted them up.
The real fun happens on the roof. Your perspective shifts up there. Instead of focusing on the foundation of one house, you can see a whole row of buildings, and in this case they almost all had solar arrays. A healthy breeze up top cut through the heat of the early D.C. summer, which was especially nice given the direct sunlight streaming down.
This was a pitched roof, so each half sloped up at a roughly 20-degree angle to meet in the middle. To take some of the risk out of the equation, we hooked our harnesses into a “yo-yo,” a retractable cable contraption that the workers had bolted into the rooftop. Upon clipping in, I immediately felt the cable tugging me up toward the peak of the roof. If you pulled hard on the cable, for instance because you tripped over yourself and slid down the shingles, the yo-yo would arrest your fall.
Connecting the panels is really quite simple. The crew had installed racks on the roof frame the day before. Once we lifted a panel up, we just had to lower it into position, clip its wires into the master cable, and bolt it into place. That process did get harder as the number of installed panels increased—getting into position to secure the glass then required maneuvering among the ones already laid down.
For 20-year-old Breonnie King, one of the solar installers-in-training, the work was smoother than some of the other environmental trades she’d tried, like conservation and clearing out invasive plants.
“All you have to do is climb a ladder and grab a drill and you can have an impact,” King says. “In comparison, this is a lot less painful than being stung by bees or flowers.” And whereas clearing invasives might make way for more native plants months down the road, the payoff with solar installation comes immediately. “As soon as we flip that switch, it has an immediate impact for the environment and the homeowner,” King says.
Cutting the bill
With a full load of 16 panels in place, it was time to retreat to terra firma. I caught up with Bundy as he sat in the shade of a tree in his front yard, buses and cars zipping by in the sunny street below. He told me that, beyond the direct savings from the energy he produced, having the installation overhead and the data on how much it yielded would help the family be more intentional about their energy usage.
“When I’m conscious of how much I’m using, I’m going to use less and when the panels kick in, I’ll save even more,” Bundy says.
The word-of-mouth approach really worked to get people on board with solar, he adds. He’d seen solar organizers going door to door in the neighborhood, telling people about different programs the D.C. government was funding to increase access. Then people tell their neighbors, friends, coworkers. At one point in the afternoon, his mother stopped by for a visit and asked the GRID team about whether solar could work for her house, which has a flat roof.
Somewhere inside, the team electrician flipped a switch, made the connection, and the electrons began to move. Just another day’s work.