by Glenna Wiseman
Vice President, Marketing, HelioPower

Children running in the grass.  Volunteers securing tents.  Dignitaries making their way to a donor’s reception. The many hands that have IMG_6174-1330538180-O-Chelped shape a sustainable community where once violence ran amuck all gathered last Thursday.  Those who have volunteered, supported and helped build this bright light of an affordable housing community in an oppressed neighborhood in San Diego came together to celebrate another milestone in the history of Las Serenas.  Las Serenas Goes Solar!

Donors, dignitaries, politicians, federal and state program representatives, construction partners and the community itself all rallied to help Community HousingWorks (CHW) celebrate another accomplishment for Las Serenas.

Las Serenas, on the border of National City and San Diego, is a shining example of the impact CHW has on communities as the rehabilitation of this 108-unit apartment complex transformed a formerly high-crime block into an attractive safe-harbor anchor in a struggling lower income community.  This time the cause for celebration was free solar energy for its tenants and the many tenant based benefits derived from a creative combination of state and federally funded initiatives.

In November 2009, CHW was awarded the first Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) Track 2 grant by the California Center for Sustainable Energy (CCSE) to install solar energy in the Las Serenas affordable housing community. CHW worked with HelioPower to develop and fulfill the Las Serenas project.

The grant funds provide free solar energy to the low-income families at Las Serenas. The program also provided residents with job training and educational support on all aspects of sustainable living.   The simultaneous  “green” apartment improvements grant from federal NeighborWorks funds provided  installation of low-e, dual paned windows, water-saving tub and kitchen fixtures, and related kitchen and bath repairs.

Congressman Bob Filner (L), Susan Reynolds and Martha Gonzales of CHW

Congressman Bob Filner (L), Susan Reynolds and Martha Gonzales of CHW

On Thursday, Community HousingWorks staff was joined by Congressman Bob Filner (D-Calif.),  NeighborWorks America CEO Eileen Fitzgerald,  Irene M. Stillings, CCSE Executive Director and solar installation partner, HelioPower, among many others to celebrate their solar and green building initiatives.

100% of the clean energy generated from the solar power system will benefit the Las Serenas tenants, offsetting on average 20% of their annual electricity bills.  Additional ‘green’ apartment improvements, funded through a grant from NeighborWorks America, will also lower tenant utility bills and create a more sustainable community.

Community HousingWorks President, Susan M. Reynolds spoke eloquently of the victories accomplished by her team and those at the

Susan Reynolds, President, Community HousingWorks addresses solar celebration crowd.

Susan Reynolds, President, Community HousingWorks addresses solar celebration crowd.

community itself, “Today we are celebrating the victory of our residents over those who would say we cannot be free from violence and despair,” she said.

Las Serenas resident, Lillian Wellman, describes the savings on her electric bill!

Las Serenas resident, Lillian Wellman, describes the savings on her electric bill!

Las Serenas tenant, Lillian Wellman, brought the benefits of the solar energy system to life when she spoke to the gathered crowd. “When I got my electric bill, I was so excited because I could afford my bill now,” said Lillian. “My first bill went from $60 a month to $36, which makes a huge difference for my family.”

“Look around you.  We are surrounded by energy.   And just about all of it comes from the Sun.   Wind comes through differential solar heating, hydroelectric power from the sun driven water cycle.  The food we eat – biofuels – calories – come from the Sun via plant photosynthesis.  Food is energy – human energy.  And Las Serenas is ultimately a story of energy,” said Tom Millhoff, Vice President of Business Development for HelioPower.

“We are surrounded by solar energy.  Some of it you can see. These 300 solar panels will produce about 100,000 kWh annually – enough to replace 76 tons of carbon dioxide– or the amount of C02 sequestered by a 15 acre pine forest.  You may see sleek black glass on these roofs… I see an urban forest and it’s beautiful.

These photovoltaic panels absorb photons – light – and that energy knocks loose electrons, which race through the panels and electrical

Tom Millhoff, HelioPower

Tom Millhoff, HelioPower

equipment, and every single kWh benefits Las Serenas residents… enough to reduce their electric bills by 20%.  The hardware you see is supported by software that monitors and measures the solar production and shows just how much clean solar energy is benefiting residents – you can see it today in the community center, and you’ll see it soon on the web.  But that’s just part of the story.

We are surrounded by human energy.  Creative, energetic and inspired people who’ve taken this effort far beyond a solar installation, and created a truly integrated energy initiative, who’s components include:

  • Energy Workshops – conducted in both Spanish and English to increase resident awareness and appreciation of the benefits of solar & energy efficiency
  • Ongoing Outreach – “Green” bi-lingual curriculum that teach residents how to live a more environmentally conscious life.
  • Green Job Training and Job Creation – as part of this initiative HelioPower conducted solar installation workshops and hired Las Serenas residents to participate in the installation and get hands-on job training.
  • Wireless Internet access – to improve this community’s communications and access to information and educational resources.
  • Energy Monitoring – in the community center and soon on the web

This Las Serenas Clean Energy Initiative is a shining example of what can happen when the public, nonprofit and private sectors work together,” closed Millhoff.

At the solar celebration, CCSE presented CHW with its $412,000 rebate check for their MASH Track 2 initiative at Las Serenas.

Susan Reynolds and Sochiata Vutthy of Community HousingWorks accept check from CCSE's Irene Stillings

Susan Reynolds and Sochiata Vutthy (L) of Community HousingWorks accept rebate from CCSE’s Irene Stillings

Irene M. Stillings, CCSE Executive Director, started her remarks quoting the June 7th New York Times Thomas Friedman column, “You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornadoes plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once? The answer is denial.”

“But not in California, not in San Diego and not at Las Serenas,” proclaimed Stillings.

Las-Serenas-Goes-Solar-Childrens-Book-one-pageTo memorialize the day’s celebration, the children of Las Serenas created a storybook about solar at the community, which they presented as a thank you gift to Congressman Filner. “The families were able to use the gift from the sun to supply energy to their homes and lighten their burdens,” stated one young resident!

NeighborWorks America CEO, Eileen Fitzgerald, reviews Solar Storybook with children of Las Serenas

NeighborWorks America CEO, Eileen Fitzgerald, reviews Solar Storybook with children of Las Serenas

PHOTO CREDIT:  Maria Robinson,