Can legislation help diversify solar workforce? Illinois hopes so.
- May 6, 2019 4:00 pm GMT
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WRITTEN BYKari Lydersen
Advocates say previous clean energy legislation offered too little, too late to close the solar industry’s diversity gap.
Chris Williams is a success story of Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act.
The expansive 2016 legislation aimed to not only ramp up renewable energy development in the state, but to do so in a way that spread the benefits to include low-income, minority and rural communities.
The law helped Williams launch a job training program from his black-owned solar business in Chicago’s far south suburbs. The Millennium Solar Electric Training Academy in two years has graduated more than 50 people who might not otherwise have had access to the skills training needed for the industry.
Across the country, the solar industry’s workforce is largely white and male. A report released Monday by the Solar Foundation and Solar Energy Industries Association shows its workforce is 74% male and 73% white. White men also earn more and are more likely to be in leadership positions.
State-level data wasn’t collected, but anecdotally there’s little reason to think the workforce in Illinois, despite its efforts, is significantly more diverse.
Illinois has been a leader in trying to address diversity gaps in clean energy, but while the Future Energy Jobs Act created new training opportunities, some advocates say the programs are too little, too late. In total, the law funded training for about 200 people — enough to fill just a sliver of the estimated 3,000 solar installer jobs in the state.
Several advocacy groups are now calling for new legislation in hopes of improving on the Future Energy Jobs Act’s incremental success in spreading the benefits of solar and other renewables.
Solar for All
The 2016 law’s Solar for All program called for jobs to be created specifically for alumni of the state’s foster care system, for veterans and for people returning from incarceration. The law included funding to train 50 such employees in solar installation per year for four years, 25 annually from downstate Illinois and 25 in the Chicago area.
The nonprofit organization Elevate Energy was deputized to work with partners including the groups Faith in Place, Blacks in Green and the Little Village Environmental Organization, as well as Chicago’s City Colleges and companies like Millennium Solar, to recruit, train and try to employ people from diverse communities in solar jobs.
Williams said the law has “absolutely” been a boon for his company and for increasing diversity in the state’s solar industry. With funding under the Future Energy Jobs Act, Williams runs a 10-week solar PV installer program that includes a one-week “solar boot camp.” Two cohorts of trainees have graduated from that program, with 21 graduating from the first cohort and 30 from the second cohort.
Nineteen graduates from the first cohort have found jobs, according to Elevate. One woman who graduated from the first program was an instructor the second time around, and another graduate recently got a $26-an-hour job as a solar foreman, Williams noted.
The Future Energy Jobs Act, or FEJA, also funds a solar training academy in Marion in the far southern part of the state, where Elevate works in conjunction with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois aiming to create solar jobs for people affected by the steep decline in jobs in the state’s coal industry.
In two years the two training programs combined have yielded 71 graduates, including 40 African Americans, 16 Latinos, 12 women, and 36 returning citizens, according to Elevate. That’s shy of the law’s goal of 100 total in that time period, but a good start, as many see it.
The Millennium Solar Electric Training Academy in two years has graduated more than 50 people, some pictured above, who might not otherwise have had access to the skills training needed for the industry. | Photo courtesy Elevate Energy
An ongoing challenge
“We’re in the process of saying: here’s what worked with FEJA, here’s where we have some additional opportunities,” said Delmar Gillus, Elevate Energy’s chief operating officer. “We’re starting to work with utility partners, grassroots organizations, other stakeholders to try to continue the initial progress.”
Gillus said training and placing people in lasting jobs was a bigger challenge than some realized it would be. The barriers have included transportation, healthcare, childcare, and other issues beyond the scope of solar installation workshops.
“Before you dive in and start training people to install solar panels, you really have to make sure they have a lot of the [basic] job skills that are necessary,” Gillus said.
That’s meant helping to provide or direct people to help with resumes, interview preparation, and other more general job skills. “We’ve found when we provide the full level of support, people can be extremely successful and take full advantage of all the opportunities out there.”
Among other things, Elevate helps trainees get drivers’ licenses, which are often a requirement for solar jobs. If they need new shoes for an interview, Elevate might connect them with a church or other resource that can help.
While the Future Energy Jobs Act created incentives for solar developers to hire installers with diverse workforces, Williams feels there has not been a systematic way for training programs like his to connect directly with developers and contractors who might hire trainees.
“The problem is connecting the dots from the school to the contractor to the developer — the dots are not being connected, there’s no master list,” he said. (On the Illinois Solar for All website, the button promising to help people “find job training opportunities, qualified trainees and vendors/contractors hiring solar installers” is not yet active, and says, “coming April 2019.”)
Elevate also runs an accelerator program for minority- and women-owned contractors, thanks to FEJA funding, helping them secure financing and develop relationships in the industry. Elevate does not have data regarding the success of this program thus far, but Williams and others say that helping women- and minority-owned firms succeed will naturally also mean a more diverse solar workforce.
Solar demand needed for solar jobs
The 71 graduates of Solar for All job training programs represent only a small fraction of solar jobs in the state: There were 2,986 solar installation jobs and almost 5,000 total solar jobs in the state in 2018, according to the Solar Foundation.
While most early graduates found jobs, there’s concern about future classes. The Future Energy Jobs Act sparked a rapid boom in solar projects that some fear may be followed by a cliff, leaving future trainees in a job market that is saturated or waning.
FEJA called for increasing installed solar capacity in the state exponentially from about 55 megawatts in 2016 to up to 3,000 MW by 2030, in part through creating Solar Renewable Energy Credits meant to incentivize residential, commercial and community solar development. The program was wildly successful, with many more proposed projects lining up for solar credits than credits were available.
While the credits are poised to create a solar building boom in the next year or two, after that experts say there will be limited funds available for future incentives — hence the possible “cliff” in solar development.
“Currently, just about all the RPS funds [collected to meet the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard] are obligated so there won’t be any significant state procurements for new projects for the next several years,” said Peter Gray, an analyst working with clean energy groups. “If things remain status quo and no new legislation is passed, we’d expect job losses in the solar sector in Illinois from 2020 to 2024 and renewable capacity will plateau at around 7%.”
If demand for solar in Illinois flags, there will be fewer opportunities for anyone to work in solar, and those already facing employment barriers will likely find it even harder.
“Often what we see with investment programs is there’s an influx of dollars and programming that happens and those who are already well-informed and well-connected are able to take advantage,” said Jeanine Otte, associate director of workforce development for Elevate. “And then others years later are trying [to participate] but the opportunities are not as great as in the early stages.
“That’s why we’re trying to share as much information as possible, particularly in the early stages [of Illinois’ solar boom]. If we continue with the same people who are at the table time and again, nothing is going to change — we need every kind of person in this industry.”
Chris Williams works with trainees.
Photos courtesy Elevate Energy
Two bills currently before the state Legislature aim to address these concerns, by significantly expanding the solar market in Illinois, and increasing training opportunities for women and minorities and incentives for solar projects that employ them. Critics say that while there have been successes under the Future Energy Jobs Act, much larger and more organized programs are needed to meaningfully increase the diversity of Illinois’ solar workforce for years to come.
One bill, the Clean Energy Jobs Act, is meant to expand Solar Renewable Energy Credit offerings into the future and create more solar jobs, while transitioning Illinois to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Another proposed bill, known as the Path to 100, also promises to transition the state to all clean energy, creating 21,000 clean energy jobs largely through utility-scale wind and solar developments.
The Clean Energy Jobs Act, which is backed by labor unions and community organizations who plan to lobby in Springfield on May 9, promises to quadruple the size of the Solar for All program. It aims to create solar jobs for a diverse workforce and also aims to make community solar accessible to a wider base of customers.
The bill calls for “clean energy workforce development hubs” training diverse populations for the solar and wind industries, and connecting them with jobs.
“Sometimes you get a training program but a job isn’t necessarily there at the end,” said J.C. Kibbey, Illinois clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped draft the proposed legislation. “We’re envisioning this as a comprehensive pipeline, with training on the front end and jobs on the back end, not just a training program in isolation.”
He said clean energy leaders need to “make sure we’re resourcing front-line organizations and doing community outreach to make sure the population we want to have access to these jobs are actually aware of them, know that they exist.”
And programs must also provide basic support and job readiness, he said. “If you’re a single mother and don’t have a car, trying to do a training program that’s in the suburbs can be a real challenge.”
The Clean Energy Jobs Act also calls for a contractor incubator to help small and “disadvantaged” businesses get bonding and financing and logistical support. Kibbey compared the concept to Chicago’s 1871, a renowned accelerator for tech start-up businesses.
The bill would also prioritize projects meeting two or more “equity criteria” when renewable energy projects are being procured by the Illinois Power Agency, which buys power on behalf of the state’s utilities. The criteria include having a minority workforce, being a disadvantaged business enterprise, meeting equitable subcontracting requirements, hiring workforce training graduates, or creating community benefits agreements, as noted in a fact sheet about the bill.
The programs could be funded in part through the renewable energy charge on bills paid by utility customers statewide, Kibbey said, and other funding sources would likely be necessary. Kibbey said the clean jobs workforce hub would cost about $25 million a year, while there are no specific figures for how much the incubator would cost.
“It can be really hard to find any pool of money that’s sitting in Springfield,” the state’s capital, Kibbey said. “Part of the stakeholder conversations is finding funding mechanisms.” He said the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity — which has done much to fund the state’s coal industry over the years — would likely be involved in supporting the clean energy job programs.
The Clean Energy Jobs Act also calls for Clean Energy Empowerment Zones creating incentives for renewable energy development in “communities transitioning away from fossil fuels.” While thousands of coal mining jobs have been lost in southern Illinois in recent decades, urban areas are also seeing coal plants close. In many cases those plants — like two in Chicago that closed in 2012 — were are located in minority, low-income communities that bear the brunt of environmental and health effects even as coal plant employees are often not from those communities.
“When you look at how the fossil fuel economy was run, the structure was certain people were left behind and subject to vicissitudes of that fuel source,” Kibbey said. “As we move toward this new economy, we need to be really aware of addressing some of those historical inequities and creating a clean energy economy that is more equitable. Equity is not an add-on, it’s not a nice-to-have. It’s part and parcel of a clean energy economy.”
A continuing legacy
Williams, a third-generation electrician, became interested in renewable energy around the year 2000, with climate change in the news and fears of Y2K-related grid disruptions looming.
“I was understanding the depletion of our oil, and wanting to know what the next thing is going to be; if the world doesn’t come to an end, what are we going to do for electricity?” Williams remembered. “I started researching wind and solar. I was not interested in climbing those towers, so I said, ‘OK, solar it is.’”
Williams trained in a solar program run by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association in Custer, Wisconsin, and then he began incorporating solar into his construction business.
In the early days, his father and other “traditional electricians” he worked with were dismissive.
“When I mentioned to my pops that I was interested in solar, he kind of rolled his eyes at me, ‘OK, another pipe dream,’” Williams said. “I’m sure he’s proud of me now. He’s passed away, but I’m sure he’d be proud of me.”
Williams’ training academy has so far been held at local colleges, and he said he is planning a “brick and mortar” location for what he hopes will be known as a “solar university.” Gillus said Williams provides a prime example of the opportunities possible in the solar industry, opportunities which he hopes can become accessible to more and more people who have been left out so far.
“If we want to invest in the next generation of clean energy workers and make sure it is diverse, we still have more to do,” Gillus said. “Our plan is to stay optimistic, to continue to work hard, continue to engage our utility partners, create opportunities, engage organizations and make sure they understand the importance of engaging all communities. Yes, we have work to do, but there are a lot of community organizations, partners and solar companies committed to making sure we improve.”