Cal Poly’s Power and Energy Society (PES) club helped put seven solar panels on the home of a low-income family in Nipomo Jan. 21 and 22.

Students began installing the solar panels to Eduardo Ramirez's self-built home on Jan. 21. Although the system normally costs $12,000, GRID installed them for free.

Under the supervision of the local branch of the national company, GRID Alternatives, 20 of the PES members put up the solar panel system for Eduardo Ramirez and his family, who built their home with the help of People’s Self Help Housing (PSHH), a housing group on the Central Coast that helps low-income families construct their own homes, according to the PSHH website.

Steven Fernandez, the project manager and regional director for GRID Alternatives, said the group partners with PSHH as well as Habitat for Humanity, in order to help those who most need more sustainable energy.

“There’s eight families in this development, and they actually all worked together and built each other’s houses from the ground up,” Fernandez said. “Our goal is to hopefully put solar panels on all the houses built by self-help housing.”

President of the club Danny Zapeda said after interning with San Diego Gas and Electric, he was motivated to seek out GRID Alternatives so PES could help install solar panels.

GRID Alternatives opened its Atascadero office in November. GRID had a project in December, but the club decided to participate in the project in January because of winter break, Zapeda said.

Homeowner Eduardo Ramirez said the panels will help with energy costs, as well as other benefits.

“It’s good that it’s going to be helping out for the future of our environment,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez’s neighborhood is filled with other PSHH houses, including a nearby neighbor who will get solar panels from PES and GRID Alternatives next weekend, he said.

Some of the families in the neighborhood still hadn’t decided if they wanted the solar panel system. The system costs $12,000 but is of no charge to the families and saves them $7,500 over 30 years, Fernandez said.

“Our first client went over there and talked to two of the families that were still skeptical and showed them how we sealed the roof,” Fernandez said. “Basically, he showed them around the system, and now he wants to do it. So he’s going to go talk to the other two families to let them know that it’s actually a pretty good thing.”

Members from GRID Alternatives and PES worked throughout the day Friday to set up rails for the solar panels to sit on, which were attached to the rafters of the roof and sealed to prevent any roof damage. Saturday was a short day that consisted of setting up the seven solar panels.

PES member and electrical engineering graduate student Jameson Thornton said the hands-on experience of going up on the roof was beneficial for he and other members.

“For me, just being involved in a club exposes me to things I didn’t get to see in class,” Thornton said. “I get to go on industry tours, actually install solar panels and get a lot of that hands-on experience. We get a lot of experience in labs, but it doesn’t get more real than this.”

Other majors are encouraged to join PES to participate in activities too, Thornton said.

“I think everybody here is an electrical engineer, but we could use mechanicals and non-engineers,” Thornton said. “A lot of the stuff we do is emphasized on electrical engineering because we are electrical engineers. We could use some fresh perspectives, and other people could learn quite a bit.”

The work and effort gets members to do the hands on activities like installing the solar panels, as well as taking a two-hour orientation during the winter quarter, Zapeda said. However, PES has many other activities as well for those who don’t have as much time , including company tours and networking opportunities, he said.

Fernandez said the students’ experience is helpful in making the project a success. He also said GRID Alternatives relies on volunteer workers for its projects, as well as some subcontractors.

“We can actually work with folks who’ve never held a drill, and we can teach them how to do it,” Fernandez said. “So, it’s a cool benefit when you do get folks who know a little bit.”

With the newly installed solar panels, Fernandez said the Ramirez family can expect to have 90 percent of their energy needs met by the panels, as well as having other cost benefits. The panels save energy from the sun throughout the day, so if the Ramirez family has extra stored energy, the electric company credits them.

“This energy is actually going to be sent right into the electrical service panel where it can either be used by the home or sent back into the grid,” Fernandez said. “If the house here isn’t using it, it will go back into the electric lines for the neighbor’s to use.”

If more homes want the panels, PES may make the solar installs a consistent project in the future. Thornton said he hoped the partnership with GRID would provide a legacy for the future.

“I’d like to be able to come back in five or 10 years and have the club still be here, and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I helped make it big that one year,’” Thornton said.

Fernandez agreed.

“It’s great to have engineers understand more of the in-field, hands-on portion of it,” Fernandez said. “I think this is valuable work for them.”

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