‘We Too Must Improve’: Clean Energy Industry Looks Into Mirror on Racial Inequity
U.S. clean energy organizations joined nationwide expressions of grief and anger this week following the recent killings of black Americans including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) lamented continuing racial inequities in the U.S., suggesting they would redouble efforts on diversifying the renewables workforce and consider how their industries can stand against racial injustice.
SEIA, the nation’s largest solar trade organization, said it joined in the “heartache and rage over such systematic racism in our country.”
“We stand in solidarity with the protesters who are fed up, frustrated and disappointed that our country has not addressed racial injustices. We add our voice to the cacophony of those demanding justice and equality,” said SEIA president and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper in a statement.
During a Tuesday panel at AWEA’s Clean Power Expo, held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, Energy Storage Association CEO Kelly Speakes-Backman said the industry needs to consider how to balance economics, the environment and justice.
AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan said the largest U.S. wind trade organization had begun a discussion at its Monday board meeting about what the protests and “enduring injustices in this country” mean for the industry. “We know we too must improve,” Kiernan said.
Some individual renewable energy companies have taken action: Renewable energy provider CleanChoice Energy this week donated $25,000 to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund.
Efforts to diversify renewables workforce have fallen short
While the U.S. clean energy industry has for years promised to hire more people of color and women into its ranks, it remains mostly white. Wind and solar jobs consistently rank among the fastest growing in the country.
Last year the nation’s solar workforce was 73 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic or Latino, 9 percent Asian, and 8 percent black, according to a report from the Solar Foundation. Overall, the country is 60 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic or Latino, 13 percent African American, and 6 percent Asian, according to the Census Bureau.
At the senior executive level, the solar industry was 88 percent white. In 2018, the overall U.S. wind industry workforce was 69 percent white, according to a 2019 report from the National Renewables Energy Laboratory.
There have been some efforts to diversify the wind and solar industries. SEIA has worked with the Solar Foundation on a guide to educate solar companies on how to recruit, support and retain a more diverse workforce. In 2018, SEIA also entered into a partnership with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Community Development Action Coalition to work to recruit more students into the solar industry.
Rosemary Lytle, president for the NAACP’s Colorado Montana Wyoming state conference, wrote for Greentech Media in 2018 on the organization’s Power Up initiative, which connected previously incarcerated people with solar job training.
Nonprofit Grid Alternatives partnered with the NAACP on a year-long Solar Equity Initiative in 2018 along with support from Sunrun and Vote Solar. It offered solar training to 100 people while installing solar on 20 houses and 10 community centers. In 2019, Grid Alternatives received money through California Community Reinvestment Grants Program to fund job training programs for formerly incarcerated people.
Clovis Honoré, Grid Alternatives outreach coordinator and past president of the NAACP’s San Diego branch and Irasema Garcia, the organization’s director of equity, inclusion and diversity, wrote last week that people must “take advantage of this resetting of the world’s priorities to build a new future that truly works for everyone.”
Despite such initiatives, the industry’s overall progress has been lackluster. Most solar organizations — 64 percent — still do not track the demographics of their employees, according to the Solar Foundation survey of 377 employers, making it impossible to fully assess progress. Only 22 percent of solar companies surveyed by the Solar Foundation said they had a strategy to increase the representation of people of color within their organization.
A ‘radical transformation’ that goes beyond energy
Hiring is, of course, only one part of reaching the industry’s stated goals. Several organizations are also at work to make clean energy more accessible to communities of color, where overall income levels are more likely to be lower and the impacts of pollution higher.
Rooftop solar has the potential to offer consumers significant savings. But there is a persistent gap between the percentage of African Americans and the percentage of white Americans who own homes, and rooftop solar has so far been disproportionately built in majority white communities. A 2019 study from Tufts University and the University of California, Berkeley compared census tracts with the same median household income and found that majority black communities had 69 percent less rooftop solar installed than tracts with no racial or ethnic majority. Majority white tracts had 21 percent more rooftop solar than areas with no racial or ethnic majority.
The NAACP, which works at a local level to support clean energy policies, has also published model energy policies that lay out recommendations for a just transition that includes community solar, net-metering and renewable portfolio standards that boost large-scale renewables installations. State legislation emphasizing a just transition has recently passed in places like New Mexico and Maine. But achieving a more widespread transition requires implementation and change from the industry, its leaders said this week.
“We talk a lot a lot about radical market transformation in what our electricity system looks like, but I also think it’s a radical transformation in how we do our work,” said SEIA’s Ross Hopper. “There’s lots of work to do to ensure that this transition we’re advocating for is just and equitable.”