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Low-income families in East Palo Alto receive no-cost solar panel systems

Acterra, Grid Alternatives and Facebook partner to fund projects in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto

In the tech capital of the world, the nonprofits Grid Alternatives and Acterra are finding ways to help low-income families become more energy-efficient -- and thus save money.

East Palo Alto resident Alicia Valadez has added solar panels to her one-story Glen Way home, which lies in between two solar-powered homes. Valadez's neighbors received these systems from for-profit companies, but Valadez couldn't afford it. Valadez later found out through the St. Francis of Assisi youth club that she qualified for a free solar installation through Grid.

"As a working individual I wouldn't have been able to get by if it wasn't for the help of Grid and Acterra," Valadez explained with translation help from Damian Villa, Grid's outreach coordinator. Valadez, a single mother who lives with her three kids, was excited to have the opportunity to save a projected $900 per year and said she is grateful for the work of Grid, Acterra and Habitat for Humanity.

California's Cap-and-Trade program, a market-based regulation aimed to reduce greenhouse gases, provides the funding for organizations like Grid and Acterra to install systems in areas with a combination of poor environmental quality and low-income residents. In East Palo Alto, the area between Willow Road and University Avenue is covered by Cap-and-Trade funding.

Outside of designated state-funded areas, Facebook has stepped up to provide financing for Grid installations. The social media company is providing free solar panels for 25 families in Menlo Park and 10 in East Palo Alto; installations began on March 15.

"Wherever we have offices we make an effort to integrate into the community," Facebook's Sustainability and Community Outreach Manager, Lauren Swezey said. "Facebook is happy to be involved in concrete programs that save money for low-income families and help the environment."

Grid also facilitates a job-training program. Valadez's installation was completed with the help of local volunteers participating in this program.

"The solar industry continues to grow rapidly, and many employers say they struggle to find workers trained for the job," Grid's Development and Programs Manager Mara Ervin said. "Grid provides real-world opportunities for job seekers to learn the trade and improve opportunities to get hired, including a free skills certificate program for both individuals and job training organizations."

Acterra offers a program called "Green@Home," which offers "energy efficiency education" for homeowners and renters; it supplements Grid's installations. "Green@Home" offers residents tools on how to use basic energy-saving devices and practices, such as checking the efficiency of the faucet and refrigerator, and by providing LED lights, which starts a broader conversation about reducing energy use.

To combat mistrust within the community, Acterra and Grid work together with the same families in the same communities. The two nonprofits rely on the personal connections of community leaders with the goal of making residents more receptive to the projects.

"There are many barriers to solar, but we want to break those barriers down and give low-income families access to energy- and money-saving technology," said Violet Saena, Acterra's manager for Green@Home to Grid Ready, the program aiding East Palo Alto and Menlo Park residents.

East Palo Alto has a median income of $50,000, well below the $126,000 median in Palo Alto. Solar systems can help to bridge this income gap by saving families about $22,500 on utilities over the system's expected 25-year lifespan.

"We try to help ease the transition into green energy," Acterra's Energy and Climate Program Director Debbie Mytels said, adding that Acterra and Grid do as much outreach as possible in East Palo Alto in order to provide more equity in terms of sustainable and affordable resources.

Information about the requirements to qualify for free solar installations can be found on Grid Alternatives' website or available by calling 510-731-1333.

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