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A unique affordable housing program installing rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) panels also uses sweat equity to give needy homeowners and neighbors the chance to learn new job skills.

San Francisco-based nonprofit Grid Alternatives says it plans to apply its Solar Affordable Housing Program to nearly 40 homes in the San Francisco Bay Area and save each household more than 50 percent on their electricity bill.

Grid is also recruiting program homeowners to train them to assist in the installation. When homeowners are physically unable to do the work, Grid hopes to recruit neighbors.

"Part of it is to get the homeowner involved with the installation and another goal in the sweat equity part is to provide job training," said mechanical engineer Jim Sears, Grid's program director who confounded the operation with energy engineer and executive director Erica Mackie.

"If the homeowner is a senior or disabled we are working to try to find people who are interested in getting job training working with contractors who have volunteered and to get some paying work (or education credits) out of this," Sears added.

Qualified homeowners are those in households that earn 80 percent or less of their area's median income or those who purchase a below-market-rate home as designated by the city or county where the home is located.

"We are also working on partnerships with Habitat for Humanity. They are getting involved with solar and we want to help them with their installations," said Sears.

Sears says over the next year and a half, Grid hopes to install solar PV systems on 10 to 15 homes in San Francisco, 10 each in Oakland and Pleasanton and a couple more in San Mateo county where the first installation begins this week.

As an example, a $13,200 solar PV system reduces electricity costs by 52 percent, a savings of about $45 a month.

The California Energy Commission could rebate up to $9,600 (an emerging renewables rebate program could change rebate amounts) and the homeowner uses approximately half the energy-cost savings to pay off the remaining $3,600 with monthly payments on a 30-year, flat-rate 6 percent loan.

Also, training could give the homeowner the added value of marketable skills.

PV system installation is free, as are implementation of related energy efficient measures for the home, and Grid helps the homeowner obtain the rebate.

California also offers a 7.5 percent tax credit on solar and other renewable energy systems.

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