RICHMOND -- A big smile spread across Raul Valencia's face as he watched volunteer workers prepare to install solar panels on his house. The Valencias were one of eight families in Richmond's Iron Triangle neighborhood to receive a free rooftop solar installation Saturday as part of the eighth annual Bay Area Solarthon.

"It's going to make me save a lot of money, so I can start saving for my kids," said Valencia, who has three children.

His oldest just started high school. He said that if the materials and labor had not been donated, he wouldn't have been able to afford it.

"And also, to help out the planet," he said.

Workers install solar panels on the roofs of eight Iron Triangle homes in Richmond on Sept. 7, 2013.
Workers install solar panels on the roofs of eight Iron Triangle homes in Richmond on Sept. 7, 2013. (Mark Boyer)

When work is completed, each family's electric bill is expected to drop 75 percent. In sum, the eight families should save $148,000 in the 30-year lifetime of the systems, according to installers.

The Solarthon was organized by Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that brings solar energy to low-income families. Grid Alternatives analyzed each home's energy use to determine what type of system each family needs.

The eight panels on Valencia's roof were donated by SunPower, and they retail for about $10,000 total. The event's other major sponsor, Yingli Solar, also donated equipment.


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Valencia first became curious about solar energy when he noticed Grid Alternatives installing solar panels on his neighbor's roof. "It's very visible, so your neighbors will ask about it, and word of mouth¿ gets around pretty quickly," said Johannes Copeland, a retired Marine Corps officer who served as the installation team leader at Valencia's home.

Grid Alternatives began installing solar systems in Richmond in 2007, and it has installed 116 systems in the city so far, not counting the eight from this year's Solarthon. The group also partners with local job-training organizations, providing hands-on technical experience.

The organizers intend to help the environment and to help families in economically depressed neighborhoods build wealth.

Work was briefly interrupted at one of the eight sites when gunshots were fired in an adjacent alley, and volunteers were forced to come down from the roof. "Unfortunate distraction, but it kind of highlights why this stuff is so important," said Grid Alternatives co-founder Tim Sears, watching as police officers arrived on the scene.

"This is a movement," said Otheree Christian, president of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council.

Grid Alternatives installed a solar system on the home of Christian's 78-year-old mother this spring, and he said it's saving her more than $100 per month in energy costs.

"It's helping those who really can't afford it and are just making ends meet every month."

This article was produced by RichmondConfidential.org, a nonprofit news service based in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.