Belle Haven homes get free solar panels


The phrase "free" often elicits skepticism. Anyone who has received a "You just won a free cruise" phone call knows there's a catch.

So when the environmental group Menlo Spark, Facebook, the nonprofit GRID Alternatives – along with the city of Menlo Park – teamed up to provide free solar panels to 10 residences in Belle Haven, it was natural that people at a December meeting to learn more about the opportunity seemed wary.

But there is no catch, said Diane Bailey, executive director of Menlo Spark, whose goal is to guide Menlo Park to "climate neutrality" by 2025. Up to 10 Belle Haven homeowners can get solar panels installed for free on their homes if they meet certain requirements.

To qualify, people must own and live in their homes, have a household income at or below a certain annual limit (under $93,850 for a household of four and under $65,700 for a household of one), have a roof with 10 years of life or more remaining, and a monthly electric bill above $30.

The first of the homes to receive solar panels belongs to Gloria Williams, 76, who lives on Chilco Street. Her solar panels were installed on the gray afternoon of March 8.

Usually, Ms. Williams keeps many of her lights turned down low, part of her conservation strategy for making the most of a fixed income. A proud homeowner in Belle Haven, where an estimated 53.6 percent are renters (U.C. Berkeley Urban Displacement Project, 2013), she says she purchased the house about 42 years ago for $17,500.

Within the walls of that home, she raised her three children and took temporary care of 73 foster children over the years, she said. Now she lives alone in the house, but frequently hosts visits from her grandchildren.

"I love my little house," she said. "I don't take this for granted."


The agencies behind the program each played a different role in making Ms. Williams' solar panels happen. Menlo Spark, Ms. Bailey said, initially brought the stakeholders together.

Menlo Spark reached out to Facebook's sustainability and community outreach manager, Lauren Swezey, who said the Menlo Park-based social media giant was pleased to help fund the project to "reduce local demand for carbon fuels and support the creation of green jobs."

Funding also came from the California Public Utilities Commission's Single Family Affordable Solar Homes Program.

Menlo Spark also contacted GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that trains volunteers to install solar panels for minimal labor costs, which procured materials and did the installation.

The city of Menlo Park sent a letter to Belle Haven homeowners to let them know about the project, and noted that solar panels can reduce electric bills by 75 percent, increase home value, decrease power plant pollution, and support green jobs and local job training.

In all, Ms. Bailey said, the 10 solar installations will save an estimated 550 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or the equivalent of taking 100 cars off the road for a year.

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