Solar Spring Break Part 1: Arrival in Cali

As we dropped our luggage on the wooden floors, an illuminating echo filled the reservation ranch house, rousing it from its rainy Sunday eve slumber. In the span of a few days, our group of eight had trickled into California all the way from North Carolina’s Research Triangle. For the next week, we would make this spacious, empty 2 bed / 2 bath house situated among trees and rolling farmland our home as we would learn and install solar panels on low-income homes together.

Ranch house on the San Pasqual reservation

Our week on the San Diego San Pasqual reservation taught us not only how to install solar, but how solar empowers sovereign communities like the San Pasqual tribe, and how exciting renewable energy access can be for families!

UNC Solar Break team and GRID volunteers join family on the San Pasqual reservation to celebrate the completion of their new solar installation!


It was up to us individually to plan our flights out there. My own trip began with a temporary panic — on Friday at 6 a.m., I rolled over to check my phone and realized I slept through my alarms! My flight was to depart in less than an hour, at an airport 30 minutes away. I leaped out of bed, grabbed my suitcase and backpack, and within a few minutes of travel in the direction of the airport, realized it wasn’t going to happen. Heart sunken, I called Delta to explain my situation, trying to keep my frantic heart subdued, to speak calmly and clearly. Noting medical implications for having missed my flight, I was able to talk to a rep who was willing to help. I had just started a new prescription, meant to combat my back-pain & tension driven insomnia, but hadn’t had the experience to predict its utter incapacitating effect on my body.  But wow, that Thursday night sleep was pretty nice… My week leading up to Friday was intense, with three different major projects due, at least one all-nighter and many four hour snooze nights.

I held my breath, waiting on the line with Delta. The lady noted it was a nonrefundable, unchangeable ticket, but that she would see what she could do…  Waves of anxiety pulsed through me as I hoped another flight could be found last minute, and was scared to hear about the additional costs a different plane ticket out to California — my flight costs were already at roughly six hundred… Then lady at Delta told me she could “reschedule” my soon-to-be-missed flight for later that day for an extra two hundred bucks, going out of her way to negotiate both my departure and return flight details in order to help bring the overall additional cost down. Flashbacks to Economics class: “think on the margin” rung in my head, and I kept in perspective my excitement for this trip. It was definitely worth it — and my enthusiasm was reinforced throughout the week in Cali.

I landed in Los Angeles late Friday night where my friend Adrian welcomed me to the West coast. More than half a year ago and nine time zones away — six from my home in North Carolina — I met Adrian in Copenhagen, where we spent a few sunny summer weeks discovering the city before his departure back to the US. Now reunited in LA, he showed me some of the city and SCU’s campus before we embarked on the hour and a half roadtrip south to San Diego.

We arrived early for the Sunday check-in with the San Pasqual Environmental Department and passed the time with a walk around the reservation. A representative soon arrived followed by the other UNC students, and we were granted access to the ranch house. Adrian and I exchanged our “see you later”s and I joined my fellow Tarheels.

Our Solar Spring Break volunteer project had officially begun. Luggage, air mattresses and a few cots were distributed between the two bedrooms. We noted the lack of curtains across the beautiful large windows, then drifted off to sleep.

Unable to snooze beyond sunrise, I snuck out of my boisterous air mattress and into the kitchen early Monday morning to brew a fresh pot of coffee. Others began to stir and then a few of us stepped onto the front porch for a short yoga session.

View from our Ranch house on the San Pasqual reservation


Our Monday entailed an orientation at GRID Alternatives’ office — the non-profit through which we were volunteering, followed by a tour of the Energy Innovation Center, and then some free time before beginning work bright and early the next morning.

GRID Alternatives endeavors to improve access to affordable renewable energy.  Working with homes whose income level qualifies for free solar panels and free installation, it relies on grants from sources like the city, and from the help of fundraising by groups like ours. Prior to our trip, our UNC team met and exceeded our $5,000 goal that went directly to the cost of solar panels. (You can read my first post about GRID & fundraising before the trip here.)

A fellow Tarheel awaited us at GRID’s office! Rachel McMahan is a recent graduate from UNC’s Environment and Science Communication Dual Degree program, the very same program I’m doing at UNC! She was the first person to set the precedence for combing the two degrees at once, and my cohort was the first to follow her footsteps a year later, so in a sense, she was like a role model and mentor to us. Seeing her again and witnessing her passion in action via her work in the solar industry was so exciting!

At the orientation, we learned more about the organization, its involvements in the US and in some locations abroad, solar installation basics and safety. GRID has installed more than 8,000 systems, with more than 30,000 kW installed, generating a lifetime savings of nearly $250 million. It offers volunteers training and certificate programs to help secure jobs in the industry, with a focus on under-served communities, veterans and refugees. It holds job fairs at GRID inviting trainees and employers, and 350 trainees have been connected to jobs. It also works in policy advocacy and focuses on equity and inclusion.

In addition to it locations across North America — on US administered and sovereign reservation lands — GRID has work-sites in Nepal, Nicaragua, Mexico and in indigenous off-grid communities. They are working to help sovereign lands like the reservation we were on go 100% solar, helping to protect them from disadvantages of dependence upon the power utility that was said to have disproportionately turn off power to the reservation. Members of the community can choose to be trained with GRID Alternatives, working to empower the community.

UNC Students attend a GRID Alternatives orientation in San Diego to learn about the solar industry policy, tech and objectives of GRID, pass around a micro-inverter, sign the GRID-UNC banner, join an-all staff meeting and grill out together.

An all-staff GRID meeting was held after orientation. GRID’s various locations tuned in for the web-cam meeting to provide updates on their branch progress, including local policy changes, grants, new faces in the office and the presence of solar spring break students like us. By the end of the meeting, everyone was ready for a grill out, allowing students and staff to chat informally for an hour about GRID and various topics. Before the end of lunch, I asked if we could have the opportunity to continue one of our discussions on Equity and Inclusion, and thankfully we were able to find a time later in the week.

The Solar Smart Flower rises and opens

Following lunch, representatives of the solar SmartFlower arrived for a demonstration! The SmartFlower awoke, rose its head and spread its “petals”, orienting itself toward the sun.

Incorporating bio-mimicry design considerations, the SmartFlower’s petals tracks and follows the sun’s rays, moving horizontally and vertically along the sun’s position, for greater efficiency in capturing sunlight through the day.

Features include: self-cleaning, cooler petals, greater efficiency compared to rooftop solar, portable, EV compatibility, simple installation and elegant design.


UNC Solar Spring Break 2018 students volunteer to install solar panels in San Diego on the San Pasqual tribe with GRID. During Orientation, a demonstration of the SmartFlower is given.


The Energy Innovation Center was our  next stop, where we toured a demonstrative smart home, bio-wall, and an urban garden.

Touring the Energy Innovation Center in San Diego


We picked up some work pants from the nearby thrift shop, grabbed coffee at Lestat’s, headed to Ocean Beach in the dark for acroyoga then finished the night at OB Noodle.

Acroyoga on the beach
Dinner at OB Noodle!


The next morning, we began the install!

UNC students getting ready to go up on the roof. Harnesses with an attachment cable are required!


Part 2 is now posted! See Solar Spring Break Part 2: Installation, here


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