Building tangible things in the material world isn’t really my forte. I build business processes for profitable growth, but I’m easily lost with hammers, nails, and tool belts. When I joined the Enphase team last summer, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the world of solar. I’d seen panels on rooftops, I’d understood the benefits to both the environment and consumers’ pocketbooks, but the nitty gritty was pretty foreign.
After nearly a year at Enphase, I know a lot more today than I did way back when, but I still hadn’t spent any time in the field, getting my hands dirty.
At Enphase, we partner with GRID Alternatives — a remarkable nonprofit based in Oakland, CA — and support their efforts to make solar accessible to low-income communities and provide solar workforce training for underserved communities. They do great work and have an incredible story, so I couldn’t refuse an invitation to be part of the volunteer installation in Sebastopol, CA on March 29th.
I can get lost replacing a lightbulb, but with my military background, I’m pretty good at following orders. When we arrived in Sebastopol, the GRID Alternatives team were already prepped with all the equipment, tools, and a roadmap for the day. Cora Saxton, the Solar Installation Supervisor (SIS), briefed us on the project, safety protocols, and then got us ready to work.
Our team of Enphase executives were shown the correct, safe way to climb a ladder, communicate with the roof and ground crew, and use some of the specialized tools. It turns out that yelling “Headache!” is better than “Heads UP!” when something falls off the roof. Makes sense, right? I appreciated that the GRID Alternatives team took the time to train the team on proper safety measures. Working on rooftops can be dangerous, so careful, safe installations are crucial. It’s also nice knowing that Enphase systems have inherent safety advantages over competing solar technologies. We want our installers to be safe, and we also want homeowners to rest easy once their systems are up and running, too.
After the safety briefing, we were split into ground and roof crews. My colleague Bert Garcia and I were assigned to configuring conduits on the ground crew. In his day job as Enphase’s CFO, Bert keeps us all in line, but building conduits, he was following orders just like the rest of us. An experienced crew would make light work of our task, but it took us most of the morning.
Bending metal piping to house the wiring from exterior electrical boxes, we put our tools, tape measures, and pencils to work.
The key to this job was to properly build each conduit to connect the electrical boxes to our Enphase combiner boxes. The combiner box is where we put the Enphase Envoy – the awesome device that allows homeowners to see how much energy their household uses over the course of a day, week, or month. With the MyEnlighten software application, homeowners can see when they use the most energy, and how much comes from their solar panels versus the utility company. Insights like this help homeowners make simple changes in their behaviors (like running the dishwasher during the day) that help them to be even smarter with their energy usage.
GRID Alternatives packed sandwiches, so eating lunch gave our Enphase team an opportunity to check in on each other’s progress. Sitting around with the roof crew, we heard from Enphase Head of Service & Quality Jeff McNeil and General Counsel Denis Quinlan about mounting racks on the roof and digging into our Enphase microinverters. The rest of us were pretty impressed with this operations-manager-and- lawyer duo.
Wrapping up lunch, I was hungry for my turn on the roof. A little workplace competition is good for morale. I grabbed a harness from Christos Mimikopolous — who recently joined Enphase as Senior Director of Commercial Operations — and made my way up. Being on the roof presents plenty of hazards, but our thorough safety training gave me the confidence and awareness I needed to stay secure up there.
Up top, with my harness locked into the safety cable, I noticed dozens of rooftops across the neighborhood lined with solar panels and Enphase inverters. I pointed this out, only to learn that ZZ Homes, the neighborhood developer, are fully outfitted with solar. What’s better, GRID Alternatives and Enphase have been involved in nearly 100% of the installations. It was a powerful reminder of what can be accomplished with partnerships like the one Enphase has built over the years with GRID Alternatives.
While up on the roof, I attached Enphase IQ6+ microinverters to the roof racks, getting them prepped for the solar panels. Jeff McNeil was itching to get back on the roof, so I made my way down and joined Bert on the ground.
From there, we passed panels up to the roof like an old-school fire brigade shuttling buckets of water. Our team was in lock-step, two on the ground, two on the roof, and the installation was really moving. The final piece was to attach the solar panels; we were all pretty proud to see it come together.
Being in Sonoma County, it’s impossible to ignore the wine industry — it’s romantic and seductive, but at the end of the day, it’s agriculture. Like wine, the solar industry can seem a little walled off or unapproachable, with the advanced technology and the cost to get started — although it’s certainly more affordable now than ever before. But, like wine, solar is pretty simple — it’s construction. It’s about building something that will improve lives, make an impact, and endure. It’s easy to lose that when you get stuck in the technology and complex engineering. Nothing drives the simplicity home more than spending a day bending pipes, climbing ladders, and attaching panels to racks.
A genuine thank you is in order to the GRID Alternatives team. I’m allergic to tools, but they made me feel comfortable and welcome, and pushed me up that ladder. Getting my hands dirty was inspiring. It became clear to me that homeowners deserve a simple explanation for how the process works and we’re looking forward to telling that story. We have a long way to go to make solar completely approachable and easy to understand, but I’m excited to venture forward. And really, if I can figure this stuff out, well, the future for solar looks pretty bright.
Take a look at our time lapse video here: