"This is my Sunshine" - A day with Solar Richmond

Authors: Barbara Grady Climbing down from a rooftop after a Solar Richmond on-the-job training session, Julian Smith said “I wake up dreaming about doing this.” The lanky 23-year-old who lost his job as a highway maintenance worker last November said he’s found his calling in the solar program. Solar Richmond was one of the first green jobs programs to put boots on the ground – or, rather, the roof – busy since 2006 teaching Richmond residents how to do solar installations and get jobs. As it launched its seventh training session this month, a bunch of us from Green for All went to visit. We watched from the ground as a dozen young men and women in hard hats and orange T-shirts worked on the roof of a bungalow, measuring, placing panels onto brackets, guiding electrical wire through conduits, talking and listening. The 10 students and two instructors were installing a 10-panel 1.6 kilowatt system atop a house in Richmond’s Iron Triangle, a neighborhood known locally as among the toughest in this generally tough city. When the students came down off the roof to talk to us, their exuberance could hardly be contained. “I love this,” said Gary Campbell, a 28-year-old left jobless when the housing construction market fell apart. “This is good experience for me and the way of the future.” Morris Gales said he had eagerly waited for a chance to join the program. Ricky ThiaPen is a Katrina survivor who came to California to seek a better situation. “This is my sunshine, my sun through the clouds,” he said. ThiaPen graduated from the program and is now an instructor. Earlier in the week, the students had been in a classroom in an assimilated construction room that Solar Richmond shares with RichmondBUILD the city-sponsored workforce training program of which Solar Richmond is one part. In the classroom, the students learned the principles of how photovoltaic solar cells turn sunlight into electricity and the panel installation process. Four days later they were on the roof doing it. No wonder the program has a waiting list of 318 people. Solar Richmond is a five week segment of RichmondBUILD, 12-week construction training and job readiness program for low income Richmond residents. The solar piece was started by software entrepreneur turned social entrepreneur Michele McGeoy who wanted her home city to feel the sun and produce more jobs for its residents. She convinced the city government to set some “green” goals around going solar (city hall now gets its electricity from solar panels), providing solar jobs and making it easier for low income residents to install solar. Through a partnership with GRID Alternatives, low income residents get free installation – and the Solar Richmond trainees get hands-on experience. In a city where unemployment is in double digit numbers and violent crime is the highest of any city in California, bringing solar-propelled energy and jobs to the lives of its residents is indeed bringing in sunshine. “To think we could get solar into the Iron Triangle is very meaningful,” said Angela Greene, an early graduate of the program who is now Solar Richmond’s Project and Training Manager. “We talk about renewable energy and the positive energy of the sun,” she added. “Well, I’ve been renewed too.” Find out more about Solar Richmond. The organization wants to expand and take in more of the 318 people on its waiting list. To donate please go online or mail checks to Solar Richmond 360 S. 27th St., Richmond, CA 94804 Barbara Grady is a journalist who has worked for the Oakland Tribune and Reuters News Service. She is currently a policy intern at Green For All. Photo Credit: Steven Loewinsohn, Green For All.

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