The transition to a carbon-free future risks deepening racial inequality.
But two organizations will be trying to prevent this divide by boosting both access to solar power in one of the largest African American communities in the U.S. and the number of minorities working in renewables.
According to the Chicago Defender, Blacks in Green, which aims to build self-sustaining African American communities, and residential solar electricity company Sunrun, will partner to offer solar power systems to Southside Chicago homeowners. The organizations will also create clean energy jobs in the area, whose population of more than 750,000 people is more than 90% black. Sunrun has promised to recruit trainees from the Blacks in Green network.
This effort will help address an ongoing issue with minority underrepresentation. Senior-level employees in the solar energy industry are 80% male and 88% white, according to the 2019 U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study, a survey of almost 800 solar employers and workers that was released in May. Black workers comprise just 7.6% of the industry, according to the study, though they represent 13% of the overall U.S. workforce.
Lacking diversity may have consequences. For example, six black former employees of New Jersey-based Momentum Solar recently filed a lawsuit alleging the company fired them after they complained that managers subjected them to racist taunts and paid them less than their white coworkers.
Nathanael Greene, a senior renewable energy policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that renewables growth will depend on the industry’s efforts to be inclusive.
“To get to 100% renewables, everyone has to have access to wind and solar, and other renewables,” Greene told Karma. “That means making sure that they’re not just available in the suburbs for people with lots of money. We need to focus on policies that make renewables accessible to people who live in cities and for people with low and moderate income.”
Solar in the Nation’s Capital
A number of renewable energy companies have already made progress in connecting with underserved communities.
Consider GRID Alternatives, an 18-year-old company that provides solar power and jobs to areas in California, Colorado and the Mid-Atlantic region, and to tribal communities nationwide. The company also has an international program serving Nicaragua, Nepal and Mexico.
Among its recent projects, GRID Alternatives is participating in Solar Works DC, which aims to provide solar electricity to 100,000 low-income households in the nation’s capital and to cut their energy bills by 50% by 2032. The company is also paying workers to learn to install solar panels in low-income neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, Sunrun has been increasingly active in building ties to minority markets.
In April, the company teamed with GRID Alternatives to support a renewable power project managed by the NAACP. The project will install solar panels at 10 community centers and 20 homes for low-income people. It will also provide job training for 100 people.
The Chicago Southside initiative is further evidence of this commitment.
“Communities of color contribute the least yet suffer first and worst from the harms of global warming,” Naomi Davis, president and founder of Blacks in Green, told the Chicago Defender. “Our partnership with Sunrun is key to our ‘Sustainable South Side’ commitment — forging a path to 100% employment for our neighbors via the new green economy by 2025.”
The solar industry’s efforts to diversify may receive additional support now that The Solar Energy Industries Association and The Solar Foundation have released the 2019 Diversity Best Practices Guide for the Solar Industry. The report offers suggestions for building and sustaining a diverse and inclusive culture. Its recommendations call for changes to the way that companies recruit, interview, hire and retain their workforces.