University of Colorado PhD student Todd France, right, measures the distance between anchors while installing solar panels with Tom Roberts, of Boulder, left, and Jonathan Hinojos, center, on a Habitat For Humanity house on Friday. The CU students were glad to have real-world experience working with solar energy, they said. Colorado Daily/Jeremy Papasso

A handful of University of Colorado students headed to Denver last week to gain some hands on experience installing solar panels in a Habitat for Humanity community.

California-based non-profit GRID Alternatives spent the week installing 12 solar energy systems on homes in the Lakewood community as part of a pilot program testing the company’s plans to expand to Colorado. The group led dozens of volunteers through the construction process, installing panels that are expected to produce enough energy to supply 75 to 90 percent of the electricity used by the families.

Thomas Sellars, an Environmental Design sophomore at CU, said he signed up for the project in hopes of gaining some hands-on experience in his field.

“This is the first real-world experience I’ve gotten so far,” Sellars said. “Other than building models, it’s been mostly classroom learning so far.”

Sellars spent Friday helping install the framework for the panels, which he was told would be put up Saturday. He said watching the process from start to finish will help him understand what goes into installing a solar system, making it easier for him to incorporate eco-friendly details into his future designs.

Todd France, a Building Systems Ph.D. student at CU, said he works on project designs at a computer most days, but seeing the process for himself could make his designs more efficient.

“It sort of closes that disconnect between the designer and the construction teams if I can understand more about the process,” France said.

Each home system included about 15 to 20 panels, depending on the size of the family and is expected so save each family about $30,000 over the 30-year life of the system, said Julian Foley, GRID’s communications manager. Erica Mackie, the executive director for GRID Alternatives, said the company is planning to open a branch in Colorado early next year.

“We’ve had a lot of student volunteers, employees from Excel and the Colorado Department of Energy,” Mackie said.

The GRID Alternatives staff oversees the installation process but teaches the volunteers about best practices and allows them to help with the work, Mackie said.

“It’s really a great learning experience for the volunteers,” Mackie said. “They get some great work experience in a field that’s really growing.”

Mackie said the pilot program is over but new volunteers will be accepted next year when the company moves to Colorado. For more information about the program email

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