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SunWork brings solar power to small-footprint homeowners

Photo By: Photo by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Photo Photo By Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

SunWork, a nonprofit company that installs solar-power systems, proved the ideal provider for the Stucker family. SunWork installers include volunteers who want to help homeowners reduce their carbon footprint.

Los Altos resident Dan Stucker and his family are basking in the benefits of installing a photovoltaic system on their McKenzie Avenue house.

The California Public Utilities Commission reports that system costs per watt are decreasing rapidly – from a high of $9.5 per watt in 2008 to $6.14 at the end of 2012 – for a residential recipient installing less than 10 watts of solar power.

But the cost is still not economical for a homeowner like Stucker, who wanted to go green but grew frustrated with traditional channels that were expensive and modeled on the needs of homeowners with large energy loads.

“I want to be environmentally conscious, but it has to make sense,” Stucker said.

After a large energy provider rejected his residence as impractical for solar because of its low electricity bills – between $50 and $100 monthly – Stucker found the Bay Area-based SunWork Renewable Energy Projects, a nonprofit company that installs solar-energy systems on homes with small energy footprints with help from trained volunteers.

When he learned of SunWork via a Google search, Stucker found a solution that made economic sense. Unlike most for-profit solar panel installers, SunWork requires no money upfront and charges clients only for materials. Volunteers who invest their time helping others reduce their carbon footprints minimize labor costs.

“Without labor expenses, we can do small systems efficiently,” said Mike Balma, SunWork’s development director, of the company’s business model, which makes small-scale solar installation possible.

By selling power back to PG&E during prime times of the day, Stucker said he should break even on his 6-kilowatt system investment within four to five years. Including sales tax and permits, Stucker’s new system cost $2.75 per watt – $2,750 per kilowatt – and that’s before a partial rebate from PG&E and a federal solar-tax credit that runs through 2016.

“SunWork is almost off the charts,” he said. “It’s so economical.”

Meeting a need

As consumer consciousness of energy consumption increases and state initiatives push local governments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the use of solar power is on the rise.

The city of Los Altos confirmed that requests for photovoltaic panel permits have increased. Since 2008, 400 photovoltaic panel permits were granted, 103 in 2012 alone. But despite the surge, the city estimated that only 6 percent of Los Altos houses have photovoltaic systems.

The initial capital investment is one impediment for homeowners. SunWork – whose fourth residential installation in Los Altos was at the Stuckers – aims to make solar technology accessible to homeowners who want to be more sustainable but don’t fit the target demographic of many programs that incentivize photovoltaic-system installation.

“We found folks who didn’t use much electricity and wanted to go solar, but it wasn’t economical,” said Balma of his company’s nonprofit model.

Using the skills of 150 trained volunteers – from Stanford University engineering students to green-jobs apprentices looking for hands-on system design and installation experience – SunWork offers solar power at $3 per watt or less, well below the average cost of $6.10 cited by the California Energy Commission.

An additional benefit, Balma said, is that SunWork comes in underbudget more often than not.

Making solar simple

Except for the truck parked out front on a recent Sunday morning, it would be difficult to detect a crew of three installing 24 photovoltaic panels on the Stuckers’ roof.

By the end of the day, the family will be able to charge their electric vehicles directly from the system. Within the month, they should see savings on their electric bill.

Stucker said SunWork was the ideal fit for his needs, adding that system designers and staff went above and beyond to assist with energy calculations, design and permitting that is more difficult to complete independently.

There are no sales pitches from SunWork, according to Balma. He added that the company does not take on clients with households that average $130 or more in electricity consumption per month.

Balma said his team assesses energy needs during initial consultation with potential clients and details the costs and logistics of installing a solar system on a case-by-case basis.

SunWork guides clients through the process, from weaving through the tangle of code and permit requirements in Los Altos to submitting paperwork to PG&E for approval and helping clients apply for rebates.

The company, which has installed 65 systems, relies on word-of-mouth referrals, Balma said.

The company’s next steps include collaborating on larger solar-system installations for churches, schools and community groups with limited resources.

“This is the hands-on way to take some action,” Balma said. “You can talk about how dirty the air is or actually get your hands dirty.”

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