Real Estate

Volunteers construct solar savings

Nonprofit SunWork installs solar systems in Bay Area

As the sun streams down, volunteer Bill Lock walks the large simmering rectangle over to two SunWork Renewable Energy Projects employees. From there, Bryan Noel and Matt Thompson level and straighten the last of 14 panels in the microinverter-based system. After a few wires are connected and five minutes pass, the homeowner is returning power back to the grid. The "-4.095 kW" that flashed on the SmartMeter meant the preparation and two days of installation were already paying off.

This team, along with volunteer Eric Termuehlen, finished installing a 6.2 kW system on a San Jose home on Sunday, Aug. 2, at a lower cost because of the SunWork model. This nonprofit solar company uses trained volunteers to install solar electricity systems on homes with small energy footprints. Besides the installation, SunWork staff also handles surveying, designing and acquiring permits, which takes two to three hours at each step.

"This system offers solar to people who it wouldn't economically make sense to otherwise," Noel said.

SunWork's services mainly focus on residential homes that have an energy bill less than $100 per month. This criteria fit homeowner Paul Chestnut, a Midtown Palo Alto resident. He had his 14 panels installed last year and went with SunWork because he was impressed with their approach.

"I checked them out, and they had a fine record of accomplishments," he said. "This was an economic and environmental benefit."

SunWork also wants the homeowner to have, at the very most, a 10-year return on investment. That's where volunteerism comes in. Because of the volunteer labor, SunWork can help reduce the cost of solar by one-third, said Reuben Veek, founder, executive director and operations manager. For example, a 3.5 kW system through SunWork costs around $10,000 before the U.S. Department of Energy's 30 percent Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit. Strung together, homeowners see savings they wouldn't through a traditional commercial system.

Because of the expense of solar technology, Veek wanted to do something to bring the labor cost down. He saw Habitat For Humanity's home-building model and sought to apply that to the solar industry. He started SunWork in 2005 as a Stanford University undergraduate. After graduation, he went back to his hometown, Loomis, California, and worked for a mom-and-pop solar company. In 2007 he returned to the Bay Area and worked for SolarCity. Then, in 2009, Veek completed his first residential installation through SunWork.

From that point on, the organization has spread, completing more than 210 installations to date. And each installation is made possible through trained volunteers. To prepare these volunteers, Veek teaches free training courses throughout the year, including three this weekend in Fremont and Palo Alto. During training, participants learn the basic theory of solar systems, as well as on-site safety and best practices. The three-hour event involves classroom sessions and a lot of hands-on learning with power tools.

More than 60 people are signed up for this weekend's training, and SunWork board member Mike Balma said he usually sees three types of volunteers at the events. The first are students, industry professionals or homeowners looking to gain hands-on, solar experience. The second are D.I.Y.ers, or people who enjoy using power tools and creating with their hands. The last, and largest, is environmentalists. They want to reduce their footprint and "do more than just click on something or sign a petition," Balma said.

Since Veek started training, SunWork has equipped more than 400 volunteers, who work alongside the six SunWork staff members to make solar more affordable.

The on-site installation, while not required after training, adds to the learning process. Veek said the project lead answers questions and makes it a vocational, learning experience if a volunteer wants that approach. This can cause a slower installation time. The volunteer aspect can lead to additional questions from the homeowner, Veek said, but he answers them and ensures they are comfortable with the work.

"As we do more and more projects, that has become less of an issue," he said.

Even with so many trained volunteers, only three to four help on a residential project. But, in the case of some nonresidential projects, more volunteers are needed. One such installation occurred over winter break in December 2014 at the Our Lady of the Rosary Church at 3233 Cowper St. in Palo Alto. During a five-day installation, SunWork staff and volunteers installed 104 panels.

This large project stemmed from the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Green Committee, which includes Katia Reeves, recent Environmental Hero award winner, and her husband, Larry. The committee, which started in 2009, had the long-term goal of installing solar on one of its three branch churches, and Our Lady of the Rosary was best suited for solar technology.

"They were so patient with us," Katia said. "None of us knew much about solar before this."

Led by Katia, the church raised more than $50,000 from 70-plus parishioners. This amount was more than enough to cover the cost of the solar system after rebates.

As with any SunWork project, the staff surveyed, designed, acquired permits and installed the system. To take part in the project, Larry decided to become a trained volunteer and helped install up on the roof.

"I was surprised by how light the panels were," he said. "Also, the installing and connecting was really easy."

Larry also enjoys monitoring the 27 kW system from his computer. He then takes the data he receives and reports the performance to the Green Committee and the church's finance department.

Today, the panels soak up sunlight all day. They generated enough power in June for the church to have zero energy costs. In addition, the church collects energy credits during the sunny summer months and cashes them in during the drearier parts of the year. Each year, the church will save $6,000 in energy costs, which will add up over the 25-year life expectancy of the panels.

"It's a good feeling to produce our own energy," Katia said. "From the first sunny afternoon in December, the solar panels have been working great."


Volunteer information

What: Three SunWork volunteer training sessions

Fremont training: Aug. 8, 9 a.m.-noon, Niles Discovery Church, 36600 Niles Blvd.

Palo Alto trainings: Aug. 9, 9 a.m.-noon or 1-4 p.m., Pacific Conservation Center, 3921 E. Bayshore Road

Cost: Free

Info: SunWork

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