Solar power rises in Richmond, fuels job growth
on October 11, 2014
There’s something sprouting up on Richmond’s rooftops.
You may have noticed an increase in the amount of solar panels during your daily commute, but what you might not realize is that they are fueling job growth in Richmond.
While much of the solar infrastructure has been installed in the southern parts of the state—including several giant panel fields in the Mojave desert—solar is not only becoming a familiar staple in the Bay Area, but also in Richmond itself, where a combination of companies and nonprofits have spearheaded a green-energy boom.
Despite its lengthy tenure as a fringe energy source, solar power has become one of the fastest growing forms of energy production in California. Having the highest solar capacity of any state requires jobs, and as of 2013, there were nearly 50,000 people employed by over 1,500 solar companies, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Switching to solar also has financial benefits for consumers—federal incentives allow consumers to receive tax rebates if they choose solar. The Solar Investment Tax Credit, a federal initiative, guarantees a 30 percent discount for consumers if they install residential solar.
The municipal government has already addressed a growing demand for green jobs. According to a report issued by the Employment and Training Department of Richmond, the city will require a growing workforce to accommodate “green technology”, and green industries were cited as having a “significant impact” on a growing industrial sector.
On top of those incentives, the city of Richmond has upped the ante for residents. Since 2011, the city has poured more than $400,000 into a solar rebate program to provide free solar installation to low-income homes.
California has been trying to ease its dependence on nonrenewable energy sources for nearly a decade with Cap and Trade and other legislation, but it is only in the past few years that major solar projects have taken shape.
In Richmond, a combination of public initiatives, solar distributors and electrical companies are pushing to wean consumers off of non-renewables and toward clean energy. Nonprofit initiatives such as Solar Richmond and Richmond Build provide local apprenticeship programs and eventual employment for a growing “green-collar” industry.
Marin Clean Energy (MCE) is one of the major players moving solar initiatives in the Bay Area. Based in Marin but expanding rapidly in Richmond, the organization seeks to tackle climate change while also providing a competitive alternative to non-renewable energy.
“We are a hybrid between a public and private utility,” said Marin Clean Energy spokesman Greg Brehm.
MCE offers alternatives for Pacific Gas & Electric customers who want clean energy but want to avoid doing the grunt work themselves.
MCE has a dynamic business model. Instead of selling solar panels directly to homeowners, they simply contribute energy to the grid by using the same lines and wires as PG & E, the primary utility provider in the Bay Area.
“Our mission is simple,” Brehm said. “Minimize our carbon impact.”
MCE is developing several plots of land in Richmond for solar use, including a large solar array at the Chevron Refinery. One advantage of installing solar panels is its convenience. MCE has capitalized on local brownfields, plots of land deemed unusable for other regular use because of ground-based pollutants.
Rather than the symbolic value of clean energy, Brehm sees the move as pragmatic. “[Brownfield] sites are typically capped so you can’t do any drilling on it,” he said. “The most you can do is a parking lot on it and it doesn’t require any penetration on the land.”
Local solar installation companies have also benefitted from the growth of renewable energy in Richmond. Ally Electric & Solar is one of several companies in the Richmond area that offers both solar installation and fixed utility costs.
According to Nur Saglam, a spokeswoman for Ally, Richmond’s good weather allows its customers to gain consistent energy from its solar panels.
“Our clients in Richmond are the happiest,” she said.
Like many companies in the past decade, Ally have adapted to changes in the utility industry to do business. Once an electrical company, they now offer long-term solar plans along with installation.
Most local solar companies require customers to pay a fee upfront or take out a loan with a third party vendor, a price too steep for many. But installing panels on your rooftop could have a direct impact on the Richmond economy and on your bank account too.
Such programs have produced a pay-it-forward mentality in the community, too. On top of installation, Saglam said that the company has made home utility education a top priority for its consumers.
“When you go solar, we can teach you how to save and how to monitor it,” Saglam said. “Installers will often discuss practical energy conservation techniques with their clientele. When [our customers] see what they’re producing, they understand.”
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