Harnessing the Sun for Energy Justice
GRID Alternatives is turning the sun into power for underserved and environmentally disadvantaged communities in Southern California — and beyond.
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ERIN MARIE MILLER
It’s a hot, sunny Southern California morning and a group of volunteers in hardhats is assembled under a tent in the backyard of Jennie Ramirez’s El Monte home. One of those people is Danny Hom, communications coordinator for the nonprofit GRID Alternatives of Greater Los Angeles. As we watch from the shade of the tent, a small team prepares to install fourteen solar panels on the roof of the unassuming home. The installation is being provided at no cost to the Ramierz family through Energy for All, a program of GRID Alternatives, in partnership with Trojan Battery Company.
The program, Hom says, “connects families who are income-qualified and living in environmentally disadvantaged areas to resources that help lower their energy costs.” Hom tells me GRID started out as “a small organization in Oakland with big ideas about bringing solar to neighborhoods where it wasn’t already there.” Since its founding in 2001, GRID has helped more than 10,000 families in California, in addition to providing services in other states and countries like Mexico, Nepal, and Nicaragua. According to Hom, GRID is the largest solar nonprofit in the United States.
Partnering with corporations like Trojan Battery is important. “We’re grateful that with the support of Trojan Battery we can bring solar energy to the Ramirez family,” says GRID Alternatives Greater Los Angeles Executive Director Michael Kadish. “We always appreciate support for the work we do in El Monte, and GRID looks forward to helping the family that lives in this home enjoy the financial benefits.”
Bryan Godber, SVP of Trojan Battery, says, “Trojan is very excited to continue to build a closer relationship with GRID Alternatives. We are extremely supportive of their organizational mission and purpose, and have a positive experience with their teams every time we collaborate on a project like this together. We are fortunate to work with them and are looking forward to many more opportunities to support future projects similar to this one with GRID Alternatives.”
The nonprofit also provides free career development training for anyone interested in entering the expanding solar industry. Natalie Falconi and Alejandro de Leon, both trained under GRID’s workforce development program, lead the two-day solar installation on the Ramirez home.
According to Hom, around 90,000 people in California work in the solar industry but there is a disproportionate number of women who are trained in solar installation. “[GRID’s] vision for an equitable solar industry needs women at every level in the solar industry as a whole. [...] What’s disproportionate is the number of women who are trained for constriction on the roof. We want to make that training available to women as well, so that not only can there be strong numbers of women in business management but also strong numbers of women doing installation work.”
Residents can find out if they are qualified to receive resources through GRID Alternatives by visiting www.energyforallprogram.org or calling 213-725-5122. English and Spanish options are available. You can also learn more about the nonprofit by visiting http://gridalternatives.org.
Article was published in print only and is currently unavailable online.
Date of publication: Monday, Sept. 10, 2018
Such Great Heights
Local folk musician’s new video chronicles an intense yearlong journey
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIN MARIE MILLER
In his video “Bag of Bones,” Alexander Vlachos sings the same song every day for a year, starting in December 2012. The video highlights the physical and emotional changes he endured throughout those 12 months — including shaving his head, losing weight, becoming physically fit, and letting go of old bad habits.
This quest to become a greater version of himself is the essence of Vlachos’ folk project, Greater Alexander.
Heavily influenced by Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bon Iver, Vlachos is slated to release the first single, “Bag of Bones,” off his album Let Love In this month. “Bag of Bones” is an eerie tune with the theme that life is moving much faster than anyone realizes.
Vlachos will release the album Let Love In when the video for “Bag of Bones,” which chronicles that yearlong journey of emotional changes, has received a million views on YouTube — a goal he says the video’s creators think is doable based on their experience. Michigan Motion Buds, a local production group whose clients have included H&R Block and Ford’s Mustang brand, created the video.
“The inspiration behind [the album] is how to really let love in — how to come in tune with the body that you have, and a lot of the songs kind of resonate toward the idea of ... a metamorphosis,” says the 34-year-old, who was born in New York but moved to Detroit when he was young.
While at Wayne State University, where he studied music and international studies, Vlachos started a solo project called Ambient Alexander. He changed the name to Greater Alexander to reflect his endless quest to reach “a greater part of myself.” And with his recent successes, he continues on his journey.
Greater Alexander’s folky sound harkens back to the late ’60s/early ’70s., Vlachos is gathering funding for distribution through Patreon, preferring to use the crowd-funding website instead of going through the traditional commercial route.
Deeply inspired by Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound, Vlachos says he prefers to layer sounds in their natural environments; he recorded the album in various locations throughout Michigan, including his condo in Southfield and in several cottages in Port Austin where people invited him into their homes to record his stark, soulful melodies.
Vlachos has been slowly building a name for himself locally and nationally. Last year, his debut album, Positive Love, self-released in 2012, led to his involvement with the Acoustic Guitar Project, a worldwide movement founded by a Detroit native that aims to reconnect musicians with the moment that inspired them to make music.
The project’s premise is one guitar, one week, one song. Cities that have been included are Helsinki, Bogota, Port-au-Prince, New York City, Miami, and Detroit, among others. When the project came to Detroit, Greater Alexander was one of only 12 musicians selected to participate.
Musicians get an acoustic guitar and a handheld recorder and record an original song using only the equipment provided. The musician then signs the guitar and passes it along to the next artist. Eventually, the guitar is retired after it reaches a certain number of musicians and a concert is held; locally, the concert was held late last year in Troy.
In the past year, Marmoset Music, a music publishing company based in Portland, Ore., discovered Vlachos’ music and contacted him about licensing for soundtracks. Vlachos’ music has been used in a documentary by the popular digital film company VSCO, spotlighting a San Francisco-based food photographer named Katie Newburn. He also performed at the annual Lucidity Festival in Santa Barbara, Calif., which drew more than 6,000 people.
Vlachos is planning to do an East Coast tour after the release of the video for “Bag of Bones” to generate interest and more video views, and more support for the release of the album.
The tour will include a stop at Maryland’s Minor Bird Musical Instruments, where the custom guitar inspired by “The Symphony of This City,” a haunting ode to Detroit that he penned for the Acoustic Guitar Project last year, will be waiting for him.
Check out Vlachos’ music at greateralexander.com.
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIN MARIE MILLER
Growth is slow but steady for family-owned, Michigan-centric The Granola Tree
Big things are happening for the little company The Granola Tree, but the owners are staying committed to their roots.
“Our main focus is sticking with supporting Michigan,” says Lisa Lamb, who is one-third of the Brighton-based business that offers a wide assortment of gourmet peanut butters, jams, granolas, and oatmeal. “We’re very invested in our state, and in supporting other small Michigan businesses.”
Their dedication is a family affair: Lamb runs the business with her mother, Christine Cross, and her sister, Sarah Cross. Lamb and her sister grew up eating the same products they make today; their mother took it one step further in 2010 when she started selling all-natural, organic granolas at the Brighton Farmers Market. Then the sisters got involved, and things evolved from there.
Part of that evolution is the addition of gluten-free products, spurred by Lamb’s daughter, Maggie Rose, who began to exhibit the signs of celiac disease when she was born (Lamb’s husband also has celiac disease).
Today, the majority of their products are gluten-free, vegan, and locally sourced. They also contain no artificial sweeteners and are made from sustainable ingredients.
“Local” is a key ingredient in every aspect of The Granola Tree, and if it isn’t available locally, sourcing “stays in the United States — even our coconut [is] Florida coconut,” Lamb says.
Lamb says that when they were starting out, the company offered just 10 flavors of peanut butter. They now rotate seasonally through 65 flavors, and also offer sunflower butter and almond butter. Some of their most popular flavors include Spicy Mexican and Spicy Sesame.
They also offer a line of handmade jams, including Mulled Wine and Blackberry (Christine’s signature recipe), Pineapple Pepper, Michigan Blueberry Banana, and Michigan Apple Butter, among other seasonal flavors. Among their oatmeal offerings is Orange Spice, a symphony of comforting fall spices and oats.
However, true to their name, their specialty is unsweetened granola.
Growth has been slow and steady over the past four years, Lamb says. These days, running The Granola Tree is a full-time job.
At press time, they were planning to move into a new commercial kitchen at the Washtenaw County Food Hub after outgrowing their shared kitchen space in Howell.
Thanks to a grant from Eastern Market, they also purchased equipment that has allowed them to produce 900 cases of each of their products a day.
The Granola Tree’s goods can be found at Eastern Market every Saturday as well as at various farmers markets around the region, including the Westside Ann Arbor Farmers Market; at the Heart of Michigan store in Howell as well as several smaller retailers and specialty shops; and online at thegranolatree.com.
But they’re not stopping there.
“We are hoping to be picked up by larger retailers that value the integrity of our small-batch, hand-blended, locally sourced products,” Lamb says.
A-List: (Re)Purposeful Designs
Michigan shops tout socially responsible furniture, artwork, décor, and more
BY ZOË HU AND ERIN MARIE MILLER
A picture tells a thousand words, but its frame may say even more. Urban Ashes in Ann Arbor carves sleek frame designs from reclaimed lumber. Through partnerships with nonprofits like Architectural Salvage Warehouse Detroit, Urban Ashes stops these materials from being sent to a landfill. They also hire disadvantaged workers and train them in valuable skills. urbanashes.com
Anton Maka Designs
Anton Maka of Macomb frequents salvage yards and flea markets to source reclaimed materials that he incorporates in his designs. Recent work, such as his side tables, juxtapose organic materials with angular geometric forms. His lamp and lighting creations — many of which utilize repurposed pipes — are perfect for the homemaker with an industrial edge. antonmakadesigns.com
Utopian Marketplace,a virtual boutique based in Spring Lake, connects consumers to villages in India through online shipping. Bamboo salad bowls, hand-blocked table covers, and more give your home a globe-trotter ambience. Committed to supporting education and fighting poverty, owner Renee Randell works with suppliers to ensure goods are fair trade. utopianmarketplace.com
Ann Arbor-based Metal offers a range of hand-crafted metal objects for the home, including tables and sculptures. The company focuses on methods of metalworking that minimizes waste and incorporates reclaimed materials. Whenever possible, the company uses drop stock (leftover scrap materials), and many of the designs are created with sustainability in mind. metaloffmain.com
Ten Thousand Villages
Ten Thousand Villages in Ann Arbor offers handmade gifts, jewelry, textiles, and more from artisans across the globe. The fair trade retailer places importance on delivering payments to artisans in a timely manner, giving up to 50 percent cash advances when an order is made, while improving the livelihood of underprivileged artisans in 38 countries. tenthousandvillages.com
Dickinson by Design
Whether it’s a bench of urban walnut or a table carved from a bowling alley floor, Dickinson by Design strives to incorporate repurposed materials in its elegant furniture designs and reduce waste in the process. Based at Midtown Detroit’s Green Garage, they’ve also launched Detroit Dollhouse Co., which will utilize wood scraps to create artisanal children’s toys. dickinsonbydesign.com