My Green Spring Break: Installing Solar Panels

Reader Contribution by Beth Beavers
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While other college students spent their spring breaks sleeping, drinking, studying or lounging on the beach, I had the opportunity to learn about green collar jobs hands on. I was one of 12 students in a unique journalism course offered by sustainability expert and journalist, Simran Sethi, at the University of Kansas. We traveled from the chilly plains of the Midwest to the beautiful Bay Area of northern California. The course, titled Green Reporting, Green Building, Green Justice, focused on spreading the green movement to the people who benefit from it the most, but are often forgotten–low-income communities.

We stayed in Berkeley, a place where curbside recycling and composting are the norm. Buses and BART take you anywhere quickly, cheaply and economically. Notes on the walls in our hostel encouraged us to conserve water by “letting the yellow mellow” and turning off the water in the shower while soaping up. It was a stark contrast to our fair Lawrence, Kansas (the home of KU) where there is no city-wide, curbside recycling, people still water their lawns in the summer and getting around without a car can present problems (If it’s not rain or wind, it’s the cold and snow.)

Our class took the BART just a few stops away to Oakland almost daily. A diverse, sprawling community, Oakland was once known as the “murder capital of the United States.” But Oakland gets a bad rep, and over the past decade community leaders and members have worked hard to improve all aspects of their city. A big part of the improvements has been a focus on being eco-friendly. In Oakland, we worked with a non-profit organization called GRID Alternatives. GRID was founded in 2001 and works “to bring the power of solar electricity and energy efficiency to low-income homeowners, and to provide community members with training and hands-on experience with renewable energy technologies.” Families that receive panels from GRID pay nothing. GRID is an organization that could only survive in California, thanks to the state’s solar rebate programs.

Over two days, our class helped install eight monocrystalline solar panels on the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house. The Habitat development was constructed on top of a former brownfield, and all 54 of the homes in the development were built to LEED gold standards.

I spent the first day on the ground, preparing the inverter to be attached to the house, unpacking the panels and preparing them to be taken to the roof. Some of my classmates worked on the roof, attaching the support beams the panels would be connected to.

I spent the second day on the roof. I didn’t think I was scared of heights, but standing on top of a ladder, three stories up, was not as fun as I thought it would be. I wore a safety harness and was attached to the roof before climbing off the ladder. I still had to sit on the roof for twenty minutes before I stopped shaking enough to feel comfortable walking around. We spent the morning getting the wire from the inverter up to the roof. This was done by feeding fish wire down through the conduit. Once at the ground, the wires were attached with tape to the end of the fish wire. Then we pulled the fish wire back up.

In the afternoon, we moved the panels up to the roof. The first two were carried up ladders and passed up to those of us on the roof. But then someone found a giant forklift, which made it possible for all of the panels to be fork lifted up to us at once. This was much quicker and easier.

We attached the first three panels flawlessly, but while tightening the fourth one, it cracked. The four of us on the roof watched in horror as the glass on top spider webbed completely. No one seemed to be sure why it shattered, whether it was a warped panel or had just been tightened too tightly. We could have installed it, and it probably would have worked, but it would not have been as efficient as an unbroken panel. The panel was protected under warranty, so it was sent back and a replacement was hooked up to the house a few days later.

So we actually only installed seven panels. And we didn’t get to see them turned on or the meter run both ways. But now I know what a solar panel feels like (not nearly as heavy as I thought), how high up three stories actually is (high enough for my stomach to turn) and that solar technology is not as unattainable as I thought. If a group of 12 college kids could learn what we did in two days, I can’t image the wealth of knowledge and information available in solar education programs.

Photos courtesy Beth Beavers, pictured above.