Three things I learned from being a volunteer solar installer

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Last Friday, I helped to install a solar photovoltaic array of more than 500 solar panels. The array will provide 35-40 low-income households with clean, affordable electricity—enabling savings of up to $500 per household per year. The installation was organized by GRID Alternatives, a non-profit that brings together community partners, volunteers, and job trainees to implement solar power and energy efficiency for low-income families.

On a crisp Friday morning, under a cloudless Colorado sky, approximately 40 of us gathered for a short safety instruction. The solar array was to be installed in the back yard of Yampa Valley Electric Association (YVEA), a small electricity company that serves about 25,000 customers in Northwest Colorado, employing more than 60 people to do so. Many of the volunteers were Yampa Valley employees: my team of six included two linemen, a woman from Yampa Valley’s HR department and a woman from the finance department.

Volunteering reminds you that to give is to receive. Since Friday, I have had multiple moments in which I realized how much I got out of a day of volunteering. Upon reflection, here are three reasons why volunteering can be so fulfilling.

First, volunteering can give you a peek into other peoples’ lives. Someone in my installation crew had been fixing distribution wires for 16 years. Sixteen years! Others had lived in Steamboat Springs their entire lives. Many of us—whether you work as a software engineer, a consultant, or lawyer—live in a tiny bubble. By volunteering, you are exposed to different views of reality. This is further amplified when you volunteer in a developing country, yet even when you volunteer in your municipality, you will likely encounter foreign views.

Second, you can learn new things by volunteering. Related to the previous point, the exposure to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet can teach you something. It can expand your “unknown unknown”: the things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Steve, a lineman at YVEA, told me how his crew inserts a liquid into underground distribution-grid lines that will solidify, protecting underground wires from corrosion and improving their insulation. This can extend lifetime by as much as 10 years. Similarly, I learned that solar PV modules need a “WEEB” that penetrates the structure, to ground the panel in case of a short-circuit or lightning strike.

A colleague put it beautifully: “I always learn more from volunteering in other parts of the world than I can ever teach.”

Third, it’s truly fulfilling to build things by hand. At the end of the day, my crew and I had installed about 100 solar PV modules. To see a structure materialize over the course of a day, to spend a day working in the sun, to feel your muscles when you lay down at night—these are blessings for someone who spends most working days in an office.

If you want to try installing solar yourself, GRID Alternatives has opportunities around the United States. Visit GRID’s website to find specific opportunities. GRID will have a big “solarthon” in Fort Collins, Colorado October 20-22nd. Contact Allison Moe amoe [at] gridalternatives [dot] org for more info or to sign up!

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When was the last time you volunteered? In what capacity? Do you have, or did you ever have, a regular volunteering practice? How does it feed you? What is difficult? 

Thanks to Tom Figel and Allison Moe for creating this opportunity, and for all GRID Alternative staff for committing to do good work. Thanks to Laurie Guevara-Stone for reading an earlier version of this post and providing a quote. 

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One thought on “Three things I learned from being a volunteer solar installer

  1. Good work Titiaan! Just imagine how much joy your one day’s work is giving to so many people using the solar panels energy…. That is the amazing thing: you help to shine their light bright (and more affordable), and by doing so your own inner light gains extra lustre too! Taking volunteering into you weekly or monthly routine is a good idea. Selfless service (karma yoga) is a profound spiritual practice and purifies the heart. By doing good to others in a selfless way you feel interconnected and one with the universe and its inhabitants. You and me, becomes “us”. That is what the world needs. Mama

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