Alternative Energy Systems (No. 159 on the 2019 Top Solar Contractors list) headquarters is just about a 20-minute drive from the town of Paradise, California — a small city now known to most of the world after the November 2018 Camp Fire burned nearly everything in it to the ground.
Around a dozen of AES’s 70 solar installation employees were among those directly affected by the deadliest fire in California’s history, either losing their homes or being temporarily displaced. Co-owner Tim Hamor said the team is tight-knit and close with the community it serves, so when disaster struck, the solar installation company and larger community immediately stepped up to help its employees. The local bank AES does business with, Golden Valley Bank, had the foresight to set up a special fund for the community that could be delegated to different organizations in case of emergencies, which became an important resource in helping fire victims.
“That’s really key to allowing people the ability to help, is to have a quick and convenient place for them to put funds,” Hamor said. “That was huge for us, because then we could just say, ‘Here’s the link if you want to help.'”
AES managed to raise around $80,000 with help from its employees, the public and fellow members of the Amicus Solar Cooperative. SunPower also donated to the cause. The company matched employee donations 1:1, then did its best to delegate funds based on need — taking into account factors like number of dependents and who had backup housing options to lean on.
AES employees helped their colleagues in other ways too. Several employees hosted their displaced coworkers at their homes until they could find permanent housing. The company also created an online list of crucial items needed by displaced and affected workers so other workers could donate.
“Everybody was participating at different levels whether it was [monetary donations or], ‘Hey, here’s a pair of work boots that happen to be your size,'” Hamor said.
After contributing around $60,000 to its employees to adequately help them recover from the destruction and loss, AES had around $20,000 left in the fund. It chose to give that money to two local organizations dear to the company that were also affected: The Work Training Center that provides job training to adults with developmental disabilities and the Boys and Girls Clubs of the North Valley.
Although the fire happened in November during the busiest quarter of AES’s year, the company was still able to install nearly as many kilowatts of residential solar as it did the year before. There were three days at the start of the fire when AES did not work, but after that, employees were eager to return to the rooftop.
“It was helpful for them mentally just to kind of get back to doing something productive,” Hamor said. “So rather than sitting around and waiting for assistance, they were able to come to work and get some sense of accomplishment.”
The crew installed solar right up until the end of the year, although AES did lose some installation jobs after the Camp Fire. AES marketing content specialist Stephanie Bird estimated about 60 existing solar projects were lost in the fire, self-reported by the homeowners.
“Compared with more than 4,000 installs overall, it’s hardly a blip, but the numbers don’t tell the story of what devastation was experienced,” Bird said.
AES has started to hear from these former customers who are now rebuilding and looking to add solar again on new homes. The company is offering incentives for these clients, both as pre-existing customers as well as Camp Fire victims.
Hamor is proud to say all but one of Alternative Energy Systems’ employees affected by the fire have since secured permanent housing. The company is now able to look ahead to next year — and is expecting an exciting one.
“It’s certainly not the way anybody would want to grow their business, out of tragedy, but it has generated such a huge spike. We’re kind of off the charts,” he said.
He knew 2019 would be a big year because of the ITC step-down, but the additional fear of PG&E shutting power off when extreme weather conditions make wildfires likely has residents hungry for energy independence. AES started installing some storage last year and expects to see an increase in 2019.
“I think people are really wanting a backup option in these areas, so they’ll still have power when the grid goes down,” Hamor said.
The company’s deep community ties helped it survive the fire and even help others along the way. Next year, it will work on making the community more prepared if a disaster like this ever happens again.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2019 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.