It is just shortly after noon on a Saturday, and the sun stands high over the historic Atchison Village in Richmond. Not a single cloud is in the sky. In its northwestern corner, a small crowd has gathered in front of one family home.
The housing complex was originally built during World War II to accommodate workers from the nearby shipyards. In a small revolution, it was later sold to its residents and turned into a mutual housing cooperative. Today, another small revolution has set off, and the sun is at the center of attention. As the spectators observe, workers with helmets and climbing harnesses lift up rectangular panels on the rooftop of the house by rope—carefully, one by one. They are parts of the first solar electric system in the village, which will produce clean energy and reduce energy bills for the house owners.
“Energy costs are unpredictable. That’s a problem for many families,” says Mara Ervin, a development officer with Grid Alternatives, the non-profit that is installing the solar panels. The Oakland-based organization helps make solar energy available to low-income families that could not afford the technology without support. “These families usually don’t have a choice. It feels unjust that they have no access to affordable green energy,” says Ervin.
The system that Ervin and her team, consisting mainly of volunteers, are going to install in Atchison is expected to offset the home’s utility cost by $9,300 over the system’s lifetime, and prevent 30 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The non-profit partnered with the city of Richmond to invest $2.2 million worth of solar equipment and installation work in order to provide up to 140 homeowners across town with free or low-cost solar installations.
But homeowners are not the only ones who benefit from solar installations on their roofs. The growing demand for solar energy in California is creating new jobs at a fast rate.
According to the California Solar Job Census of 2014, a report issued by the Solar Foundation, the state maintained its position as the national leader in newly-installed solar capacity last year, when it added an estimated 54 percent more capacity compared to 2013. Statewide employment in the solar industry grew by 15.8 percent in 2014, which represents almost 7,500 new jobs.
This means that the job growth rate in the business is more than ten times higher than the overall job growth rate in California of 1.5 percent, according to the report. For this year, the Solar Foundation expects an even higher number, some 9,400 solar workers—a term that includes a wide range of sectors, from installation, manufacturing, project development to sales and distribution—to be added to the job market.
Players in the solar industry with charitable motives try hard to make these growing job opportunities available to their clientele. In addition to installing solar for low-income families, Grid Alternatives also provides job training to people with various backgrounds – according to the organization, many of them who would otherwise not have access to jobs in the industry. Ervin emphasizes that energy companies want to hire people with on the job experience. “A common problem is that it is difficult to get this experience. We function as a bridge to get that,” says Ervin.
The non-profit, founded during the California energy crisis in 2001, operates across the US as well as in Nicaragua. It runs a one-year fellowship that includes training for solar installations, a solar job initiative targeted specifically at women and underrepresented communities, and a program for students who can spend their spring or winter break learning to install solar energy systems. According to Ervin, it has so far trained 20,000 individuals, and in the last year alone about 40 Bay Area volunteers reported that they found a job after having worked with the non-profit. “But the real number surely is much higher,” says Ervin.
Since 2005, Grid Alternatives has partnered with California’s largest utility, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). According to Tamar Sarkissian, a PG&E spokesperson, the company supported fellowships and installations for low-income families and gave four trucks to the non-profit in 2011.
In 2012, PG&E initiated the Solar Fellow Program consisting of paid, year-long positions within the utility. “The program provides extensive solar installation experience to unemployed workers,” said Sarkissian. PG&E did not provide figures about the total number of people trained through its various training efforts and how many of them found jobs in the industry, but Sarkissian referred to another PG&E sponsored non-profit that is active in green job training, the Rising Sun Energy Center. According to Sarkissian, the utility serves 15 counties through this relationship, including the East Bay region, and has invested a total of $ 9.7 million in green jobs training.
“The solar industry is totally growing, and there is a high demand for labor. Nowadays we sometimes have more job opportunities than people who are ready to take jobs,” said Elena Foshay, the director of adult programs at the Berkeley office of the Rising Sun Energy Center. The non-profit offers training in construction, improving energy efficiency of buildings and solar installations, for both youth and adults.
According to Foshay, the center focuses mainly on people who have difficulty getting a job, typically unemployed people, individuals who are in transition after incarceration, or who are non-native English speakers or single mothers. The training for construction and energy efficiency lasts nine weeks, and the solar-specific course requires an additional two weeks. After graduation, the organization tries to establish contact with employers in order to get participants hired. Case management and employment services are provided for as long as a year. “We had a lot of success with job placements recently. A few years ago, there were more people than jobs available. That turned around completely,” said Foshay.
Things turned around for Rising Sun alumni Tyi Johnson, too. She got accepted to the pre-apprenticeship job training program Green Energy Training Services (GETS) in 2013 after a period of unemployment that eventually left her with no income. “A lot of people in my cohort knew about construction, about energy efficiency, and I was completely new to it. All I knew is that it was a good thing,” said Johnson.
The course taught her basic construction skills, how to improve residential energy efficiency, and general skills for job readiness. Following the training, Johnson earned an internship position at Rising Sun Energy Services, an enterprise that at that time belonged to the non-profit, where she had a hybrid role as an office assistant and a crew member out in the field. “I really appreciated that because everything I learned in GETS I got to apply. It was very lovely,” said Johnson.
However, according to Foshay, the social enterprise that employed a small crew of GETS graduates did not generate enough revenue for the organization and had to be shut down—again, Johnson was left without a job. “It was kind of difficult when they were no more. That’s when I began my job search in earnest, and it was really hard going. This was when jobs just dried up—even the most qualified of the qualified were not working,” Johnson said.
But she kept attending weekly meetings at Rising Sun, and last summer she finally received a full-time position as a program assistant at the Community Energy Services Corporation in Berkeley. There, she advises small to medium sized businesses on how to lower energy consumption. “Even if I don’t make a lot of money, I love my job,” said Johnson.