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Cleantech Sector Still Falls Short on Diversity, Equity

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Clean energy organizations across the U.S. are doing some soul-searching as protests roll across the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. And many are coming out of their self-analysis vowing to make good on long-standing promises to increase diversity, both in their ranks and within their reach.

Among those groups are the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), both of which have pledged to “redouble efforts on diversifying the renewables work force and consider how their industries can stand against racial injustice,” reports [1] Greentech Media. 

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“We stand in solidarity with the protesters who are fed up, frustrated, and disappointed that our country has not addressed racial injustices,” said SEIA President Abigail Ross Harper. “We add our voice… to those demanding justice and equality.”

But people will need to see action before they put too much faith in these earnest declarations. “While the U.S. clean energy industry has for years promised to hire more people of colour and women into its ranks, it remains mostly white,” notes Greentech. Black Americans in particular are notably under-represented in the industry.

Citing data from the Solar Foundation, Greentech America’s 2019 solar work force was 73% white, 17% Hispanic or Latinx, 9% Asian, and 8% African American—in a country that is 60% white, 18% Hispanic or Latinx, 13% African American, and 6% Asian. Go higher up the ranks and the lack of diversity grows even more stark: 88% of senior solar executives are white.

The wind industry work force is similarly skewed: in 2018, 69% of the industry’s workers were white.

The dearth of non-white workers—and especially of black employees—in the clean energy sector persists despite industry efforts, including SEIA’s 2018 entry “into a partnership with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Community Development Action Coalition to work to recruit more students into the solar industry,” Greentech says. In the same year, Grid Alternatives partnered with the NAACP to offer “solar training to 100 people while installing solar on 20 houses and 10 community centres.”

Such initiatives notwithstanding, progress has been “lacklustre,” the industry newsletter writes. The problem is further complicated by a lack of accurate assessments: 64% of solar organizations do not track staff demographics, despite past promises of change.

The current pandemic, however, could be an opportunity to start anew.

“Let’s take advantage of this resetting of the world’s priorities to build a new future that truly works for everyone,” said Clovis Honoré, outreach coordinator at Grid Alternatives and past president of the San Diego branch of the NAACP, in a recent op-ed [3] for the San Diego Union Tribune. In a bid to increase the distribution of solar in non-white communities, the NAACP has “published model energy policies that lay out recommendations for a just transition that includes community solar, net metering, and renewable portfolio standards that boost large-scale renewables installations,” writes Greentech.

A more diverse uptake of solar also means more diverse distribution of the benefits of clean energy, beginning with the cost savings [4] and reduced health impacts [5]. While such policies will get a boost with state support, ensuring that the transition truly includes all Americans will depend a great deal on the clean energy industry’s own actions and efforts, writes GTM.

“There is a lot of work to do to ensure that this transition we’re advocating for is just and equitable,” Ross Hopper said, adding that while the cleantech industries may be seen as radical in some ways, that commitment must now be shown in who it hires, and who it helps.