By Emily Teitsworth, executive director, the Honnold Foundation
As the urgency of the renewable energy transition only grows, the solar industry is facing two significant challenges: a workforce shortage and an equity gap, both in representation and who has access to solar energy. The simple solution to these issues is a rare win-win: good for people and good for business.
2022 goes down in history as the year the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed, setting solar up for exponential growth at last. Just as 2022 marked a clean energy inflection point, it brought worsening climate crises worldwide and a narrowing window to bring climate solutions to scale. As the energy transition accelerates, solar businesses face a critical problem: who will staff surging workforce demand?
From a record-breaking RE+ to the latest global environmental conferences, 2022 had a consistent theme: the need to make the energy transition equitable and inclusive. Here’s the good news: advancing equity through concrete action solves workforce and diversity shortages. As solar developers gear up for next-level scaling, now is the time to recalibrate and actively address inclusion issues.
The solar industry has many successes to celebrate and expand on. Solar jobs were up in 47 states and increased 9% nationwide from 2020 to 2021 to a total of 255,037 solar workers, according to the annual National Solar Jobs Census from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC). Now, the IRA will help create hundreds of thousands more jobs. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), over the next decade, solar employment will more than double, from over 255,000 today to 538,000 by 2032.
While solar jobs offer long-term paths for advancement and family-friendly careers, in 2021, 89% of solar firms reported difficulty finding qualified applicants. In addition to this labor shortage, the industry has yet to grapple with its lack of diversity and representation. According to the solar census, the clean energy economy hasn’t adequately included underrepresented groups. Women made up under 30% of the solar workforce in 2021. Black employees made up only 8%, Latinx/Hispanic workers made up 20%, and Asian workers 9%. Fewer than one-third of solar firms reported strategies to increase women, ethnic or racial minority or LGBTQ+ hires. These gaps were visible at RE+ 2022 and other otherwise celebratory industry events.
As we stand at a solar inflection point, it’s clear that this is our best chance to exchange lip service for action and build an authentically inclusive industry. Workforce talent and diversity aren’t nice-to-haves. The solar industry’s momentum and future success inherently depend on them. While diversifying our developer workforce is essential for equity reasons, it also benefits the bottom line. There’s a wealth of data demonstrating how diversity in the workforce garners better business results (Gartner and McKinsey among good sources). There’s no singular solution to building inclusive workforces or ending long-standing disparities, but we have all the tools we need to solve these challenges. It’s in our DNA. Renewable industries are known for turning the world’s biggest challenges into success stories.
While the vision may be set in the boardroom, solutions lie in communities. By exploring one working model for scaling solar equitably, business leaders may find some answers to workforce woes and solar access issues that apply across various scenarios.
One immediate opportunity is simple: invest in local communities. Investing in communities helps solve solar developers’ labor shortages and makes clean energy jobs accessible to people historically left behind. This includes strategic partnerships with trusted local leaders.
For example, through a partnership with Native Renewables, investments in Navajo and Hopi Nation programs result in solar projects, workforce trainings and jobs staffed by Indigenous solar technicians. Founded by two Navajo women to address the inequity in energy access within Native communities, Native Renewables invests in tribal members, builds the technical capacity of a local workforce, and helps grow a clean energy economy.
In West Virginia coal country, Coalfield Development is bringing solar energy into the community and solar training programs to build a clean energy workforce. West Virginian communities are struggling as the coal industry declines. People are losing their jobs and livelihoods. Coalfield Development was built by and for West Virginians in response to this crisis. The organization is creating jobs for out-of-work coal miners and their children to improve Appalachia’s future. Through this partnership, we co-funded a large-scale solar array for Coalfield’s community facility and supported a comprehensive solar job training program through social enterprise partners Solar Holler. The installation is the largest rooftop solar system in West Virginia and meets the entire facility’s energy needs. Coalfield’s latest project will draw on workforce trainees to install ground-mounted solar on a stripped former coal mine site.
Community successes are significant in the grand scheme when we talk about scaling. Investments in proven local partners have a transformative impact when deployed on a national and global scale. Community partners can help renewable industries transform one of our biggest problems into the solution to their challenges.
To succeed, solar developers need to engage, invest and trust. Just as community engagement is essential to successful siting, it is key to optimizing workforce outcomes. By partnering with local organizations already addressing workforce development, solar businesses become part of insider solutions as opposed to being perceived as outsiders. There’s no need to start from scratch. No one knows a potential workforce better than its community. There are countless ready, willing and able community stakeholders who share solar industry goals to fill jobs and increase diversity in the clean economy.
Solar industries would not be successful without strong partnerships. Our greatest strength lies in our collective power. For example, cross-sector partnerships with businesses like Sunrun, REC, Rivian and others have enabled the Honnold Foundation to deepen community collaborations that realize creative solar projects while building resiliency and diversifying the workforce. When we trust in communities and invest in their people and talent, the results speak for themselves.
Emily Teitsworth is executive director at the Honnold Foundation. The Honnold Foundation (HF) promotes solar energy for a more equitable world. Founded in 2012 by professional rock climber Alex Honnold, HF believes that energy should be clean, affordable and accessible for everyone. HF provides funding, project management and a storytelling spotlight to nonprofit partners worldwide, who are using solar energy to create opportunity, increase social equity and build more resilient communities. To learn more, visit www.honnoldfoundation.org.