It’s easy to get lost in abstract thoughts when discussing how to make solar equitable for all. But IREC’s inaugural Vision Summit in Washington, D.C., was committed to coming up with concrete steps to push the industry closer to its equity goals.
The room was full of bright minds in solar and clean energy, from lawyers to installers to advocates. Listening to the panels, audience questions and brainstorming sessions, it was clear most people there were truly passionate about making sure no one gets left behind in the green energy revolution.
IREC’s CEO and president Larry Sherwood kicked off the summit by outlining just how daunting the task of getting to 100% clean energy without fossil fuels actually is.
“We have a hard task in front of us,” Sherwood said. “We need bold solutions.”
Keynote speaker Rose McKinney-James, managing principal at Energy Works and McKinney-James and Associates, said, “There’s a direct correlation between clean energy progress and social equity.” She said states are demonstrating that committed leadership from the top down is key to clean energy action, and the path to a 100% clean energy future that includes all Americans will be based on thoughtful, creative and strategic collaboration.
Getting to 100% clean energy
Panelists from the solar, storage, energy efficiency and transportation sectors gathered on the first panel to discuss the ways each segment can optimize technology to get to IREC’s goal of 100% clean energy nationwide by 2050.
They asked the audience what needed to happen to realistically accomplish ambitious 100% clean energy goals, and most thought the answer was states and cities adopting 100% clean energy mandates. The panelists had different ideas.
Kelly Speakes-Backman, CEO of the Energy Storage Association, said she doesn’t think mandates are needed to achieve ambitious 100% clean energy goals as much as economic considerations like expanding the ITC to include energy storage and removing other barriers to adoption.
Philip Jones, executive director of the Alliance for Transportation Electrification, said nothing gets done without money, so he found that the financial sector getting bullish on clean energy investment was the most important factor to getting to 100% clean energy.
IREC attorney Sky Stanfield said she does find clean energy mandates to be a helpful motivating factor for states to go green in that they create healthy competition. The panel agreed, sharing examples of states taking action on clean energy after ranking low on lists like IREC’s Clean Energy States list or the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s State Energy Efficiency Scorecard; or states speeding up their commitments to 100% renewables after other states set goals to get there sooner.
Taking deliberate steps to make clean energy inclusive
Getting to 100% clean energy nationwide is one monumental challenge, but bringing in communities that have historically been left out of green energy is another. Melanie Santiago-Moser, senior director of access and equity at Vote Solar, said there’s a trust barrier to overcome in inclusion efforts since minorities have been left out in the past.
Jeff Cramer, executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, said that community solar is a great tool to bring solar to more populations, but it has failed to reach low- and moderate-income customers in the past because it has trouble identifying them. Trenton Allen, managing director and CEO of Sustainable Capital Advisors, said there are around 40 million Americans classified as low and moderate income, so “we know what they look like.” He said the question is, “Do we have the courage to go talk to them? To go offer them solutions? To figure out if they want to buy what we’re selling?”
“We know where they are,” Allen said. “We just need to be intentional about going to talk to them.”
Santiago-Moser said rooftop solar installers must also act with intention and deliberateness when selling solar, after reading what she called the “disturbing” report on the racial disparity of rooftop solar deployment.
Intention also came up when a panel discussed how to build a diverse solar workforce. Laure-Jeanne Davignon, VP of workforce at IREC, said clean energy can be a pathway out of poverty and into a rewarding career path.
Polly Shaw, VP of regulatory affairs and communications at Stem, said the storage industry is on the verge of a boom — and that means there will be a need for a lot of employees.
“Guess what scares me? It’s totally different jobs,” Shaw said.
She said the majority of storage jobs will be on the software side, since the installation part of storage is relatively quick and simple. She said even for skilled coders, coding for storage requires specific training and knowledge. She wants to see a pipeline for storage workers like GRID Alternatives has built for solar installation workers, where GRID trains students and can then bring their resumes directly to the HR departments of installation companies. She also pointed to the organization Black Girls Code as a good example of preparing a young, diverse population for coding jobs, and encouraged development of more groups like that for the burgeoning storage industry.
Erika Symmonds, VP of workforce development and service learning at GRID Alternatives, said even though the solar industry is no longer “small,” it’s still not seen as a job prospect to many Americans. She said the industry has a responsibility to ramp up that visibility and create pathways to good solar careers for underserved communities.
Symmonds said the solar industry should be more deliberate in workforce development. She finds the industry tends to be reactionary regarding workforce — scrambling to hire people now — instead of considering how to set up a dynamic training-to-career pipeline five years from now. She said she’s glad solar and renewable companies are expressing interest in diversity, but that the industry should recognize that cultivating diversity isn’t easy — it requires a change in culture in order to hold space for new ideas and diverse viewpoints.
Bob Hattier, business representative and trainer for IBEW Local 134 Chicago, also emphasized the importance of bringing allied industries like firefighters and electricians into solar training classrooms to show all parties how they interconnect and to increase awareness of jobs available for transferable skills.
The panelists said they find hope in the next generation because of its climate activism and concern, and they think the industry needs to work hard to engage them and show them the possibilities for green energy careers starting at a young age.