For MIT Students Installing Solar Panels, It’s a Way to Give Back

By: Steve Scauzillo

Students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology work with nonprofit Grid Alternatives to install solar panels on the roof of an elderly person’s home in Pasadena, Calif. on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Correspondent photo by Trevor Stamp)

PASADENA — Meital Hoffman squinted from the searing sunlight, then moved quickly into the shade. As one of 12 engineering students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she’s spending spring break soaking up the sun but in a totally different way than most of her college classmates.

The MIT students were helping install a solar power system on the roof of a small, Spanish-style home in Northwest Pasadena on Wed., March 28. Once completed, the system will free up the homeowner — who is on a fixed income — from at least 90 percent of her electric bill.  It will also produce clean energy without burning fossil fuels, thereby reducing smog emissions as well as greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

“Most of my friends are in Miami right now,” said Hoffman, 20, wearing jeans, work shoes, a T-shirt and a hard hat. “I wanted to do something productive, kind of giving back.”

Capturing Sunlight

She and others from the prestigious school in Cambridge, Mass., joined Grid Alternatives’ week-long Solar Spring Break program for some hands-on learning in sunny Los Angeles. On Tuesday they helped position rails on the southeast portion of the house’s roof. The next day, the students hoisted onto the roof 11 solar panels, which were then fastened onto the roof at a 10-degree tilt for maximum capture of Southern California’s 5.6 peak hours of daily sunlight.

The system will produce 2.7 kilowatts of electricity, which gets fed into the house’s electrical control panel. The homeowner’s $200 to $300 bills every two months will be reduced to less than $30, said Danny Hom, development and communications coordinator for Grid Alternatives, the largest nonprofit solar installer in the United States with projects in Orange, San Diego, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

The group, born in Northern California but with its largest office in downtown Los Angeles, drafted 200 students from 19 schools who are trading beaches for rooftops this spring.

“This is very different for me. It takes me out of the academia bubble,” said Hoffman.  She’s studying electrical engineering and computer science during a break under a shade canopy on the lawn of the Pasadena home.

“I have lab classes but it is still in a lab. It’s not like we get to talk to homeowners and see the impact these technologies are making,” said Hoffman on the difference between classroom and hands-on learning. “It’s an incredible experience to get on a roof, lay the solar panels and really use my hands.”

Magnolia Chinn, 18, a Freshman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology looks over a solar panel that she and other students installed along with nonprofit Grid Alternatives on the roof of an elderly person’s home in Pasadena, Calif. on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Correspondent photo by Trevor Stamp)

Tai Williams, a freshman from Ann Arbor, Mich. studying biological engineering, said volunteering during spring break is a way of thanking his parents and teachers, including math tutors from a joint city/University of Michigan program that taught him when he was a fifth grader.

“I thought this was a good way to spend my time and help people out,” Williams said.

Solar for All

Homeowner Deborah Ducre was born in the house built by her grandfather in 1928. She’s 82 years young.

While standing on the porch, she spoke to the students about her own volunteer efforts. She was baking a cake to deliver to the musicians at the Lighthouse Cafe, a jazz club in Hermosa Beach. Ducre worked in public relations for such Motown groups as The Temptations, Supremes and later with Earth, Wind and Fire and still associates with folks in the music business.

After talking to friends in Altadena who installed solar, she applied for solar on her home.

“I live on Social Security and it is going to save money on my utilities. My utilities are very, very high so I need to save money,” Ducre said.

Through a partnership with the city of Pasadena and Grid Alternatives, Ducre’s house was chosen for a free solar system worth about $25,000. Her home near the 210 Freeway marks the first one chosen for the spring break program in Pasadena, Hom said. This part of the Crown City is classified as low-income, also known as environmentally disadvantaged.

“It is easy for a person in Beverly Hills to afford solar energy. But here, closer to the freeways, not so much,” Hom said. “We think solar should be accessible.”

Nick Gomez, a solar installer with the nonprofit who lives in Pasadena, just finished adding 1,000 solar panels to a multi-unit housing project in Santa Ana. He spent five years at Solar City, the largest solar installer, but finds working for the Grid Alternatives “more rewarding.”

Hom said through the group’s job-training program, 87 individuals were placed in jobs in the booming solar industry in California. Mixing trainees, including those formerly incarcerated, with installers and student volunteers helps promote social and environmental justice, as well as solar energy.

“I have plenty of time in my life to go chill on a beach,” Hoffman said.


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