As women of color who are leaders in the NAACP and Vote Solar, we represent national nonprofits that operate independent of the industry, yet work closely with industry partners in our advocacy toward the same end goal: a future in which solar shines for everyone. We're deeply invested in the solar industry’s success and to the principle that diversity is key to that success.
The current energy system does not promote equitable access to employment, revenue, and other economic opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the oil and gas extraction industry is 90 percent white, while the utility industry is 85 percent white. And you don’t have to dig deep into the data to see that, like these other energy industries, white men currently dominate the solar industry.
For the sake of our energy, environmental and climate justice future, the picture must include not only white men but women and people of color. And if that isn’t reason enough, which (we firmly argue, it is) study after study also shows that companies with more diverse workforces and executive boards see higher financial returns. That’s why we must all take a closer look at who's being included — and who's being left behind.
According to a February report from The Solar Foundation, despite recent federal headwinds, overall solar employment is more than double what it was in 2010. But when paired with The Solar Foundation's Diversity Report from last fall, a bleaker picture is revealed. For women, African Americans, Latinos and other communities of color, the data shows that the solar industry can and must to better when it comes to providing equitable access to good employment opportunities.
- Women and people of color are less likely to earn executive-level wages compared to white men. Only 28 percent of men of color and 20 percent of white women earn $75 or more an hour, compared to 36 percent of white men.
- Women of color are least likely to be “very satisfied” with their current wage and position, with only 19 percent of women of color choosing this response (compared to 47 percent of men of color respondents, 60 percent of white male respondents, and 45 percent of white female respondents).
- Further, a mere 8 percent of African American respondents feel that they have successfully moved up the career ladder, while 50 percent feel stuck in their current positions. This differs greatly from 52 percent of white respondents and 58 percent of Asian respondents that feel they have successfully moved up the career ladder.
- African Americans make up just 7.4 percent of the solar workforce — compared to 13 percent of the total U.S. workforce — a negligible increase from 6 percent in 2014.
So how do we move forward from here?
We know that there are many in the solar sector — an industry founded on the very principle that there is a better way forward — who also want to see progress toward a more diverse and equitable workforce. Solar is no longer a fledgling industry, and it is incumbent upon company leaders, hiring managers, and employees at all levels to work together and chart a course in the right direction.
One critical first step is adopting equitable hiring practices. Those include a number of improvements to the way that companies recruit, interview, hire and retain the industry's workforce.
The Solar Energy Industries Association has developed a Diversity Best Practices Guide, providing guidance on broadening recruitment efforts, building a culture of inclusion, and providing opportunities for professional development.
Additionally, community groups have taken it upon themselves to develop workforce programs that help open doors to the solar industry for frontline communities. Over the past year women, and black women in particular, have made strides to break down barriers in emergency management, climate adaptation and community-owned renewable energy efforts.
The NAACP Power Up program, for instance, aligns energy justice with criminal justice by providing energy justice education, solar industry job training, and job placement for people previously incarcerated. Power Up has come to life at Positive Impact Colorado, a nonprofit that I (Rosemary) founded, where solar jobs are highlighted as a way to avoid the official, community and personal impact of recidivism.
Participants like Joseph Thompson have seen solar training as a way to stem the revolving door of incarceration. After serving five years on a drug offense, he is now almost finished with his two-year parole.
After completing an Energy Justice 101 training with the National NAACP, and receiving Solar Panel Installation training through GRID Alternatives, another NAACP solar partner, Thompson, 36, worked briefly before returning to school to earn an associate degree at Pikes Peak Community College. His emphasis is on clean energy. "I can never see myself returning to prison now," said Thompson, who leads Community Outreach now at Positive Impact Colorado. "But I can see myself teaching more young people about how energy justice is freedom for our communities."
Like Thompson’s leadership, part of what makes the clean energy economy so exciting is its potential to embody the America to which we all aspire: one that represents a better future for everyone. But in order to realize that vision, we must create it with intention; history has shown that progress is rarely found on the path of least resistance.
Renewable energy is a revolution that embodies radical, fresh and innovative approaches to the way we power our country. Let’s do away with practices that keep industries tied to past inequities. Let's transition to a clean energy economy that truly represents everyone it hopes to serve.
Rosemary Lytle is NAACP's Rocky Mountain Area state conference president; Melanie Santiago-Mosier, Esq., is program director for low-income solar access at Vote Solar.