AmeriCorps and GRID Alternatives: Partnering for a Clean Energy Future

By Kristen Haggins

AmeriCorps member working with GRID Alternatives, installing solar panel structure on roof.

AmeriCorps VISTA helps GRID Alternatives bring solar energy to thousands of low-income families.

Last week, President Obama traveled to Mountain View, California, to share a progress report on America’s clean energy future and announce new commitments to expand the deployment of solar power.   

“If we do our part right now to rebuild an economy and transition to a clean energy future, we will create new jobs, we will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we will leave our children with a better America and a better future,” the President told a crowd of nonprofit and private sector leaders who had answered his call to deploy more solar.

One of the leaders on hand was Erica Mackie, CEO and co-founder of GRID Alternatives, the nation’s largest nonprofit solar installer.  With support from AmeriCorps VISTA and AmeriCorps, GRID Alternatives has scaled from a local to a national organization, installing solar for more than 4,200 low-income families while providing 16,000 people with hands-on training and job experience in the growing solar industry.

The partnership between GRID Alternatives and the Corporation for National and Community Service began in 2006, when the California State Office approved GRID Alternatives for an AmeriCorps VISTA project focused on bringing affordable solar energy to low-income families in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then and there, we knew that we were getting in on the ground floor of a distinctive and innovative venture. 

Through this long-term VISTA commitment, national service has helped GRID Alternatives expand their Solar Affordable Housing Program throughout the state of California.  As a result, GRID Alternatives went from providing 37 volunteer-driven solar installations in 2006 to more than 1,250 in 2012.  In addition, VISTA supported the expansion of five GRID Alternatives regional offices throughout California, as well as affiliates in Los Angeles, Colorado, New York and, coming in the summer of 2014, the Washington, D.C. area. 

While VISTA and, more recently, AmeriCorps members, play an important role in increasing the number of solar power installations for low-income families, they also support the implementation of GRID Alternatives’ job training program.  Given that solar now employs more than 120,000 Americans, this effort aims to provide thousands of volunteers with essential training and hands-on experience needed to qualify for jobs in the rapidly growing solar industry. 

The partnership between GRID Alternatives and national service is a win all around:

  • Low-income families save on utility bills
  • Job trainees benefit from hands-on training
  • Harmful carbon emissions that cause climate change are reduced
  • More jobs are created through the expansion of clean energy 
  • America becomes more energy independent

CNCS is not alone in acknowledging the innovation of GRID Alternatives.  Last month, the White House recognized GRID Alternatives co-founder Tim Sears as a Champion of Change in the area of solar deployment.  And the GRID Alternatives commitment was one of the pledges highlighted by the White House last week as part of the President’s remarks on advancing solar power and energy efficiency.  

GRID Alternatives has committed to help install 100 megawatts of solar power on affordable single family and multi-family homes across the country by 2024.  GRID Alternatives is also implementing a Tribal Solar Initiative to ensure that American Indian tribes across the country have access to the benefits of solar power.  As CEO Erica Mackie said, “We will continue to work with the administration to ensure that our most economically vulnerable and underserved communities are included in our nation’s transition to clean energy.” 

National service will continue to strengthen GRID Alternatives’ efforts to bring solar energy to those who can benefit most — by cutting utility bills and providing marketable job skills in the growing field of solar energy.  By expanding volunteer recruitment, strengthening volunteer management systems, raising funds, mobilizing resources and enhancing workforce development offerings, AmeriCorps VISTA will continue to strengthen GRID Alternatives and other innovative organizations that are building a clean energy future for our nation.

Kristen Haggins is the California State Director for the Corporation for National and Community Service. 

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