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Celebration of Service

Watts on the rooftop?

IBM volunteers help bring solar power to low-income families

Energy from the sun is free—but you need a solar panel to begin to transform it into electricity. The same might be said of volunteer energy—it’s free, but you need a means by which both to capture the power and transform it into action.

When the IBM Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs (CC&CA) team in California, United States, began pondering how they were going to participate in the IBM Celebration of Service Day, they realized they had a way to amp up their volunteer power, simply by working in conjunction with a partner organization whose work they respected.

“We naturally thought a statewide engagement with GRID Alternatives would not only allow more than 100 IBM employees to volunteer at one time, but it would also provide an outlet for ‘Smarter Volunteering’ by applying their technical skills as a well-trained workforce,” says Todd Flora, the IBM CC&CA manager for the western United States.

GRID Alternatives is a not-for-profit organization that was founded by two renewable energy engineers who asked the simple question: “Why is free, clean electricity from the sun only available to big businesses and wealthy environmentalists, when it should be available to everybody?” The organization offers a rebuttal to that notion by providing fully installed solar electric systems to low-income families across the state.

The CC&CA team and the folks from GRID Alternatives thought big: they planned to do several simultaneous solar installations on California homes in the San Francisco area, Los Angeles and San Diego, using the might of dozens of IBM volunteers. When the call was put out, the idea turned out to be so popular that many IBM employees with interest in the project had to be put on a wait-list. Each volunteer attended a webinar training prior to the day of service that provided basic information about solar power and the upcoming project.

The impact on the community was impressive. One hundred and twenty IBM volunteers showed up. Six solar electric systems were installed, which GRID Alternatives estimates will generate around $150,000 in savings for the families (over the course of the life of each solar system). An estimated 600 tons of greenhouse gas emissions were prevented.

Volunteer lead Jia (Violet) Le, Marketing Manager for Business Agility, WebSphere, said the actual day of volunteering was educational and satisfying. “I learned the process of solar panel installation, and it was personally important to me to work face-to-face with co-workers on a meaningful project whose impact could be seen right away,” she says.

Todd says that helping to organize and pull off the project was gratifying. “As a Corporate Citizenship Manager, I was very pleased to have provided, along with my colleagues, an outlet for so many IBM employees to do some real, skills-based volunteering. I also like knowing we were able to get the word out about that opportunity and create such a large demand.”

The project, which generated buzz on Twitter and the blogosphere, was covered by San Francisco television stations, and San Diego city council member David Alvarez donned a hardhat and clambered up on a roof to learn about the installations.

But what stuck with Violet was something much more intimate and powerful. After a long day in the sun, putting in pipes and wiring, hauling panels from ground to roof, she watched as the family who received the solar power system took a look at their new electrical meter.

“You should have seen the smiles on the kids’ faces when they saw their electric meter start to go in reverse,” she says, all smiles herself.

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.