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What is being done to increase green energy diversity in Pittsburgh?

Martin Rafanan, a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has spent decades organizing low-wage, mostly black workers in the St. Louis area. After moving to the Hill District in 2018, Rafanan’s attention remained focused on social justice.

“For most of my work, I haven’t paid as much attention to the environment as I think I probably should,” Rafanan said. “So over the past two years, I’ve done a little more to learn more, to be educated, and to take baby steps in the neighborhood.”

These small steps include Rafanan and his wife leading a Audubon Certified Backyard Habitat, turning it into a sanctuary for birds, butterflies and other beleaguered creatures. The Rafanians also want to have solar panels installed on their house. But when Rafanan researched local installers, he realized a problem: It’s hard to find a local solar panel installer who is minority-owned or has diverse employees.

“It’s an area that will hopefully grow significantly in the years to come,” Rafanan said. “And what is the participation of people of color in this industry? It was just interesting to me.

Blacks are underrepresented in the Pittsburgh-area renewable energy sector, just as they are across the United States. Yet the region is home to people of color who are working to address this issue as activists, educators and workers.

There is an awareness of this issue in the Pittsburgh area, and initiatives are in place to help address it. However, those who work on this issue readily admit that it is complicated. Due to the importance that the green energy sector is likely to be in the future, the inclusion of people of color and other marginalized groups is a major concern.

What does the diversity of green energy look like locally?

Blacks made up about 9.7% of Pennsylvania’s clean energy sector despite making up 11.6% of the state’s population in 2020, according to 2021 Pennsylvania Clean Energy Jobs Report. Asians, Hispanics and Latinos are represented in the clean energy sector as well if not better than their proportion in the state’s total workforce, according to the report, but a September 2021 Report of E2, a national environmental advocacy group, noted that job gains for Hispanics or Latinos “have largely been in low-wage energy occupations such as the construction workforce. construction”.

Women make up just 22.6 percent of the state’s clean energy sector, despite making up about half of the state’s population.

Joylette Portlock works as the executive director of the nonprofit group Sustainable Pittsburgh and sits on the advisory board of The Black Environmental Collective. She explains that the problem is the result of several different systemic issues, including lack of access to transportation and childcare for those seeking training.

“Not just any piece of the solution is going to solve the whole problem,” Portlock said.

Portlock said she believes companies should have initiatives to promote diversity within their businesses, including engagement with local organizations that have a strong relationship with the community. Strong and accessible training programs are a necessity, she said.

“We want to have a society where everyone can fully engage and have equal access to opportunities to thrive,” Portlock said. “And when you talk about a growing industry…these are industries that are about to grow. And so if we don’t extend this opportunity to everyone, we won’t be able to take full advantage of it as a region.

Renewable energy jobs in Pennsylvania declined about 7.4% from late 2019 to late 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2021 Clean Energy Industry Report in Pennsylvania. Experts believe the industry will soon expand across the country thanks to initiatives fostered by President Joe Biden. Worldwide, the use of renewable electricity is expected to increase from 2020 to 2026 over 60%according to the IEA, a global source of sustainability data and analysis.

Fred Underwood works two days a week, 24 hours a day, as a full-time firefighter for the city of Pittsburgh. During some of his downtime, he operates a solar panel installation business, called Underwood Solar Future. About a decade ago, it seemed to Underwood that solar power would become a lucrative business venture in Pennsylvania.

Fred Underwood speaks with a customer, John Doyle, after checking out a solar system installed at his Apollo home. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

“When Ed Rendell said he was going to green all the buildings using solar panels, I started looking for solar panels,” Underwood said.

He started the company in 2009 after taking solar energy courses in Georgia, Massachusetts and Colorado. He also used his electrical work experience during his 26 years in the military.

PublicSource asked a few Pittsburgh-area renewable energy experts if they knew of any local minority-owned green energy companies, and each named just one: Underwood Solar Future.

But it’s far from a full-time business.

He prioritizes his work as a firefighter of more than two decades because of his salary and benefits, which he says have helped his four children attend private school and at least four years of college. Funding from a local veterans group has helped support his solar business in the past.

“Without the funding, it’s been sporadic,” Underwood said. “I did one system last year and two systems the year before.”

There are aspects of running a minority-owned business in general that have challenged him. He said the process of maintaining certification as a minority-owned business is proving incredibly cumbersome due to the amount of documentation it requires. He said he was unaware of any particular barriers in the clean energy industry that affected him as a black man, but he notes that he has only done solar work. for two minority customers.

“Have I lost contracts and what do you have because of my color? Maybe I did,” Underwood said. “I am not sure.”

Increase diversity and training

Khari Mosley, political director of activist organization 1Hood Media, spent seven years as regional program director for BlueGreen Alliance. He has high hopes for the region’s green energy sector, but notes that, for a variety of reasons, marginalized people are often left behind in the industry.

“Sometimes people may not be able to make that kind of time investment in a long-term certification program,” Mosley said. “These types of certifications that are useful when you’re particularly in an energy-efficient space or a solar space.”

Some local organizations have tried to make green energy training programs more accessible. He mentions the Pittsburgh A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Breaking the Chains of Poverty program in partnership with United Steelworkers, which offers training programs with a focus on sustainability.

The Allegheny County Community College [CCAC] also offers renewable energy training with a focus on inclusion of a diverse population. The CCAC hopes to launch a program in partnership with New Sun Rising in May that would provide 10 to 12 people with 40 hours of training over two weeks, free for participants. According to Debra Roach, Vice President of Workforce Development at the CCAC, working with New Sun Rising appealed to the CCAC in large part because of its focus on serving a diverse population.

“One of CCAC’s strategic initiatives is to provide opportunities for a variety of populations we serve, and that includes diverse populations,” Roach said.

George Ackerman directs the New Sun Rising training program. He said half of the chosen entrants would be from the Triboro Ecodistrict, which encompasses Millvale, Etna and Sharpsburg, and the other half would be residents of neighborhoods served by the South Hilltop Boy Group.

“We wanted to focus, with the South Hilltop Men’s Group, on getting those certifications for traditionally disadvantaged people and getting them good jobs,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman also said New Sun Rising has funds to help attendees who may need financial assistance with transportation or missing work.

The CCAC will provide 20 hours of preparation for a TABE testa widely used adult assessment that involves reading, writing and math and is required to be eligible for the program.

“We want to be able to provide the opportunity to a diverse population, and some of the population we serve may not be eligible for the program because they cannot pass the basic education test,” said Roach.

Mosley is part of Mayor Ed Gainey’s transition team, which focuses on infrastructure. He hopes to help the Gainey administration use the $18 billion allocated by the federal infrastructure bill to create jobs and protect the environment in a way that includes everyone.

“With the new [city] administration, with an infrastructure-focused federal administration, I think that could create a great opportunity for Pittsburgh to really build on the work that’s been done over the last decade to 15 years, to really grow the economy green of the region,” said Mosley. “I think it’s really, it’s probably a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

Just as the region may begin to see the fruits of an expansion into renewable energy, Underwood may soon expand Underwood Solar Future.

“I’m close to retirement for the city of Pittsburgh,” Underwood said. “So I’m probably going to go into solar full time.”

Matt Petras is a freelance writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @mattApetras.

This story has been verified by Sophia Levin.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson