Almanac

News - August 11, 2010

A new approach to solar power

Menlo Park homeowners are early adopters of Sunwork system

by Michael Abramson

Reuben Veek had an idea for how to offer solar power to homeowners who might not be able to afford it: form a nonprofit, recruit volunteer solar panel installers who are eager to develop their skills, then offer it to people who demonstrate a commitment to energy efficiency, at one-third off the cost of other installers.

Although he formed his nonprofit, called Sunwork, in 2005, Mr. Veek, a Stanford graduate, didn't really begin to use it to install solar panels until a few months ago, after he left a job at SolarCity, a major solar installer, to ramp up Sunwork.

Among the early adopters of the Sunwork system are Menlo Park residents Ora and David Chaiken, who wanted solar panels on the roof of their Sonoma Avenue home to help offset some of the additional power they will be using when they buy an electric car.

Local safety rules forced the Chaikens to put up a fairly small system — certain roof spaces have to be left open in case of a fire. Still, Sunwork expects the solar system to offset at least 40 percent of the Chaikens' current energy usage. According to Ms. Chaiken, the system should start paying for itself in about seven years.

The Chaikens' home is only the sixth Sunwork's installation, and the first outside of Sunnyvale.

Volunteers are the essential component to Sunwork's ability to operate cheaply. The company now has 50 trained volunteers and another 40 signed up to receive training, says Mr. Veek, who is the company's only paid employee.

"We've had no shortage of volunteers," he says. "There is a lot of environmental interest and there are a lot of people who are looking for something to put on their resume so they can get into the green jobs market."

Currently, Sunwork is offering its services only to homeowners in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties who "support conservation and efficiency as essential complements to renewable energy," according to the company's website, sunwork.org.

A table showing the maximum annual energy use allowed to qualify for a Sunwork installation is on its website.

Says Ms. Chaiken: "We are not solely focused on being green, but we do what we can. We try to be conscious of the choices we're making."

Mr. Veek, 27, has been involved in solar since graduating from Stanford. He calls himself "basically a bleeding-heart environmentalist."

"We're in it for the long haul," he adds.

Fitting the mold of the Stanford grad, Mr. Veek is thinking big. The website says that "Sunwork pushes to change the shape of our energy landscape, and to change the feeling that the environmental problems humanity faces are too big to be within the power of individuals to meaningfully impact."

Though her solar panels have only just been installed, Ms. Chaiken is already a strong supporter of the company. "I think Sunwork is awesome," she says. "How could you not?"

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