"We provide solar at no out-of-pocket cost," explains Paul Cleary, executive director of GRID Alternatives San Diego. We're standing in the dirt driveway of a house nestled deep in a canyon on the La Jolla Indian Reservation, about 15 miles northeast of Escondido, where a handful of college students scurry up and down ladders, preparing the home for a new solar panel installation.
The team of nine students (another nine are at work on a different home across the valley) has traveled from North Carolina, spending a recess from class participating in GRID's Solar Spring Break program.
"This is our fourth year doing the program," Cleary continues. "This year we've had three different universities out — Michigan, Arizona State, and North Carolina Central.
"Through rebate programs, fund-raising, and our volunteer-based model, we're able to cover the cost of the system. Some of our owners then end up in a pay-it-forward type of system, taking some of the money they save and donating it back to the program to help the next homeowner."
Rob Roy, environmental director for the La Jolla tribe, calls working with the students "a great collaborative experience."
"Working with the solar spring break project has been a lot of fun," Roy said. In addition to their solar work, visiting students from the campuses spend their downtime visiting with tribal members and learning about Indian culture in San Diego's backcountry.
"We have a lot of people here on the reservation, unfortunately, that have low incomes but who would greatly benefit from solar," Roy continued. So far, 24 families have participated in the GRID program, covering about one-eighth of the tribe's 200 homes. Another 25 are in the pipeline for installation either this year or next. According to Roy, about 70 percent of the typical home's energy needs are met by solar once the projects are complete.
In addition to student labor, the group relies on locals donating their time year-round to install systems throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties. Many consider the experience valuable training for jobs they hope to land in the region's growing green-energy sector.
"Most of us are either earth science or environmental science majors," said Alvon Bailey, a graduate student at North Carolina Central. "My graduate research focuses on sustainability initiatives, so coming out was a no-brainer for me, but for most of the students it's not only their first experience getting away from the East Coast but their first experience with solar panels. North Carolina is not a very green-friendly state."
Bailey says he became interested in renewables while researching an undergraduate project surveying the wind energy potential off the coast of South Carolina. He's hoping to bring his experience back home to generate more interest in clean power.
"It just kind of opened my eyes and showed me that we've got the potential to do renewable projects anywhere," Bailey said of his earlier work. "It's not like California has all the sun or all the wind."