Building a Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Renewable Energy Workforce

Building a diverse renewable energy workforce requires addressing systemic inequalities experienced by Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. According to the 2019 U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study, 88 percent of senior executives and 73 percent of workers within the solar industry are white and 80 percent of senior solar executives are men. In a panel, “Supporting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Across the Clean Energy Workforce: Turning Ambitions into Action,” speakers discussed how policymakers can address these crucial issues through federal and state legislation and identified how the renewable energy industry can become more inclusive and equitable for professionals of color from entry to executive level.

Earlier this year, the Biden-Harris Administration established the Justice40 initiative, which commits 40 percent of climate-related federal investments to frontline and disadvantaged communities. Panelists outlined specific recommendations and provided resources on how the Justice40 initiative could be implemented to support diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the renewable energy field.

Kristal Hansley, founder and CEO of the community solar company WeSolar, emphasized the importance of dedicating funds to Black, minority, and women-owned businesses. Hansley referred to the Electric Vehicles for Underserved Communities Act of 2020 (H.R.5751) introduced by Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), which aims to put 200,000 electric vehicle charging stations in low-income communities. As an example of how the 40 percent commitment could be applied, Hansley pointed out that grant funds could go toward minority-owned, renewable energy-powered charging station businesses like WeSolar and Solar Stewards.

Speakers agreed that energy asset ownership is key to building equity. Dana Clare Redden, founder and CEO of Solar Stewards, stated that one of the simplest ways to create a diverse workforce is to deploy energy assets in Black and brown communities. A 40 percent commitment could directly support distributed generation and provide technical assistance for utility-scale community solar projects. Deploying and supporting community-owned renewable energy assets would not only ease the disproportionate energy burden experienced by marginalized communities, but also organically create and support diverse clean energy careers. Black and minority-owned small businesses would become clean energy experts and provide affordable energy to low- and moderate-income families in their own communities.

Panelists identified several structural barriers that need to be addressed to build a more diverse workforce pipeline, such as a lack of workforce training, limited access to clean energy jobs within marginalized communities, and difficult access to capital for minority-owned businesses. Disadvantaged communities often face an educational barrier when it comes to accessing and qualifying for entry-level union apprenticeships. Federal and state renewable energy policy can prioritize investing in disadvantaged communities by supporting workforce development programs and improving equitable access to STEM programs for underrepresented groups.

Abby Watson, head of North American Government Affairs at Siemens Gamesa, stated that institutionalizing policies like childcare and eldercare benefits could help facilitate workforce participation throughout the economy, allowing more women to access industry opportunities. Initiatives like ACORE’s Accelerate program can further support opportunities for smaller renewable energy companies owned and operated by women and people of color.

Hansley highlighted the idea of creating a new Office of Energy and Equity within the Department of Energy, which would help implement the Justice40 initiative. Redden pointed to the need for entrepreneurs and communities to more easily find and access state-level resources, opportunities, and capital to fund and support their initiatives. At the industry level, Watson stated that companies like Siemens Gamesa are looking to direct supply chain purchasing to more women and minority-owned businesses.

The renewable energy industry, along with federal, state, and local governments, can work to invest in building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. Beyond bringing diverse talent onboard, organizations need to create a culture of inclusivity and accountability. Transparency in such efforts, along with recognizing and supporting the economic and social value diverse teams bring, will advance a just transition to a renewable energy workforce.

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