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Installation / May 27, 2017

Julian Spector/CityLab

Over the past year, I’ve written about barriers to accessing solar power, states thwarting solar growth, and the boom in solar jobs, but I’d never witnessed the physical labor needed to start drawing energy from the sun.

To remedy this, I tagged along with a nonprofit that was installing solar on the roof of a house near Benning Road in Southeast Washington, D.C. this May. I came as both observer and participant. This proved a lot more exciting than sitting at a desk all day, but the most surprising thing was just how uncomplicated the process is.


We erected 16 panels on the roof in a leisurely four hours, including a lunch break for some bracingly spicy fried chicken. This was a mostly volunteer workforce, there to hone their installation chops. Working at that rate, and with enough money and demand, a battalion of 400 eager solar crews could conceivably blanket every sunny roof in the District in a year.

Solar panels alone won’t solve climate change—there are other contributing factors, such as emissions from transportation and industry, not to mention complex dynamics to figure out with storing and distributing energy in a solar-dominant grid. Still, seeing that roof go from blank to shiny blue in a handful of hours showed me just how attainable distributed energy has become in the places where we allocate resources to pursue it.

An uneven burden

My host for the day was homeowner Keith Bundy, a 55-year-old man who’s worked security at a nearby Holiday Inn for 29 years. He sees a lot of variation week to week in the hours the hotel needs him, which can make it hard to keep up with recurring monthly expenses.

“At the end of the year it looks good on paper, but when you’re getting bills every month it’s very hard, ” he says. “[The work] is not consistent. That Pepco bill, that mortgage every month is consistent.”