All Things Considered, a daily National Public Radio offering, provided a look recently into how the solar energy industry impacts communities of color. It focused on the experience of one man, Jason Carney, an African American who lives in north Nashville. Carney began working as a solar installer in 2015 after many years in the HVAC industry. He has now created his own solar consulting and installation business.
Throughout his career, Carney says, he has often been the only person of color in the room. “Going into [a] boardroom, I’m the only person of color. We go to these conferences, and I’m the only person of color. We go to the U.S. Green Building Council — the local chapter — and of 200 people, it might be me and maybe one other person of color. It was very intimidating.”
As a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California in 2016, Deborah Sunter, who is now an assistant professor at Tufts University, studied the data accumulated by Google for its Project Sunroof initiative — which identifies which homes and buildings have rooftop solar systems installed — in an effort to see if population density had an effect on the number of rooftop systems in an area. She found it did not, but ethnicity did.
The data revealed that neighborhoods where African Americans and Latinos make up at least 50% of the population had much less rooftop solar than white majority neighborhoods or those with no racial majority. Given how much solar prices have fallen in recent years, Sunter sees these disparities as a kind of environmental injustice, akin to the placement of a toxic landfill near a poor neighborhood. “Equity isn’t just who’s bearing the disproportionate burdens of the world, but it’s also who’s missing out on the benefits,” she says.
One possible explanation for the lack of diversity in the solar industry is that persons of color simply have had little introduction to the technology. They don’t live in communities where rooftop solar is prevalent and so there is no word of mouth information spreading through the community.
Carney has made it his mission to introduce the idea of solar power to people who may not think it is for them. He says many residents in African American neighborhoods are facing two challenges. One, their houses are old and ramshackle. They may not have any insulation. They certainly do not have the benefit of the energy efficiency standards required by current building codes.
Second, many residents, including his own grandmother, face high energy burdens, meaning they spend a large share of their income heating and cooling their homes. As a result, most are struggling with monthly utility bills that leave little money left over to consider the investment required to install a rooftop solar system. “There is no conversation about what we can do,” Carney says. “The conversation is always about how high my bill is. People almost get into a competition. It’s like a sad competition” about who has the highest bill, he says.
Then he had a thought that changed the conversation. He worked out a collaboration with Whites Creek High School located just a few minutes away from his home. The school has many career oriented training programs but had none for workers in the solar field.
With the help of several grants and donations, Carney installed a 40 panel solar array at the high school with the help of several students. He has also given guest lectures about clean energy and accompanied students on field trips to Music City Solar, the local utility’s community solar project. The first students he mentored have now graduated and expressed an interest in working in the solar industry.
Carney’s message to the students is about empowerment, both personal and career oriented. “No one controls the sun,” he tells them. “If someone could, they would, but they can’t. Right now all you need is knowledge. You need to understand how it works. And you need to have faith in yourself to go after it.”
“There’s just no other way to get this to our communities,” Carney tells NPR. “So there are still these seeds of what can happen tomorrow. But we’ve got to keep pressing.”
The Solar Foundation, along with the Solar Energy Industries Association, published a diversity report earlier this year that found that executive leadership in solar companies is almost exclusively white men. It also found that women and African Americans are underrepresented in the industry. (The 2018 solar census found that 7.6% of 242,000 solar workers nationwide are African American.) The industry association has called on solar companies to diversify, calling it a business imperative.
But there are people and organizations working to improve equality in the solar industry. One of them is GRID Alternatives, based in Oakland, California. It serves Native American communities and underserved neighborhoods in California, Colorado, and the mid-Atlantic region. It also has programs in Nicaragua and Nepal. It has installed more than 10,000 rooftop solar systems in the communities it serves.
GRID Alternatives provides training for people who are interested in employment opportunities in the solar field. On its website it says, “At GRID Alternatives, we believe that a successful transition to clean, renewable energy needs to include everyone. We are working across the United States and internationally to make renewable energy technology and job training accessible to underserved communities.
“Renewable energy can drive economic growth and environmental benefits in communities most impacted by underemployment, pollution and climate change. GRID Alternatives is a national leader in making clean, affordable solar power and solar jobs accessible to low-income communities and communities of color, and our energy access work is powering off-grid communities across the globe. GRID’s vision: a successful transition to clean, renewable energy that includes everyone.”
To be successful, the solar power revolution must include everyone, not just some. With help from people like Jason Carney and organizations like GRID Alternatives, the true potential of the power the sun gives the Earth every day can be realized.
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