Solar power has transformational potential that goes beyond the electricity bill. A nonprofit in Oakland, Calif., hopes to help make connections that bring solar benefits to all, such as low-income homeowners, people seeking job training and installers that need workers.
GRID Alternatives operates mostly in California but also has projects elsewhere in the U.S. and Nicaragua. The organization works with installers, governments, affordable housing groups and others to install solar panels and train people for solar installation jobs. It has attracted support from large solar companies that see philanthropy as not only helpful to the community, but also a good way to build a future workforce.
For its Women in Solar Initiative, GRID Alternatives partnered with SunEdison to train women for solar jobs. Anna Bautista, vice president of construction and workforce development for GRID Alternatives, says that the Solar Foundation, in its 2014 solar jobs census, reported that solar jobs in the U.S. increased nearly 22% from November 2013 to November 2014. At the same time, women make up 21.6% of those jobs, which is an improvement over the 18.7% in 2013. Also according to the census, 17.2% of solar employers say it is very difficult to find qualified workers, and nearly 60% say it is somewhat difficult.
Currently, women make up about 30% of GRID Alternatives' 200-person construction staff. Bautista says this has enriched the organization's workplace culture. ‘People will make judgments about whether women can or cannot do the job,’ she says. ‘Being in a workplace that's 30 percent women is just very refreshing and creates a nice, safe, supportive work environment.’
Bautista says the leadership at SunEdison recognizes that a diverse, people-friendly workplace helps support employee retention. The company donated $5 million in funding and solar panels to GRID Alternatives to launch RISE, an initiative to support educational efforts and other programs – including Women in Solar – over the next two years. ‘SunEdison partnered with us to try to be thought leaders, making this a point of discussion,’ she says.
Research supports the assertion that diversity in the workplace contributes to a company's financial performance. According to Diversity Matters, a report from McKinsey & Co., firms that are in the top quartile of gender diversity are 15% more likely to financially outperform the national median. Companies that are in the top quartile of ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to outperform the national median.
Through Women in Solar, women are encouraged to volunteer at a GRID Alternatives build event to see if they would be interested in a rooftop job. There are also women-only build events where women can network with peers and a team leader program. The goal is to get 1,000 women involved in GRID Alternatives programs over the next two years.
‘They are able to get real hands-on experience,’ Bautista says. ‘They can go to interviews and say, 'I've worked in heights, in the sun, with safety equipment.' All those things are really valuable to an employer.’
Looking at the long term, the program is intended to enable women to rise in the ranks of solar workers and eventually earn more director and executive positions.
Another GRID Alternatives program, the SolarCorps Fellowship, is a one-year stint of volunteering and training at installation and build events. Participants can take a week-long photovoltaic training course at the Solar Living Institute, which qualifies them to take the NABCEP Entry-Level Exam.
The recipients of these solar installations are homeowners who want renewable energy and to save money on their energy bills. Residents of Los Angeles and other qualifying areas can apply for a free solar installation based on their income.
SunEdison and GRID Alternatives have partnered in other regions, too. In Baltimore, after protests and unrest related to racial issues this year, the partners launched a series of programs to help rebuild low-income neighborhoods through affordable clean energy and job training.
‘SunEdison and GRID Alternatives see Baltimore as a compelling location to bring together these core initiatives and make an impact in the community,’ says Tamara Mullings, chief of staff for SunEdison's CEO Ahmad Chatila. ‘Through panel donations, direct funding and employee man-hours, SunEdison hopes to transform lives in Baltimore and bring energy and relevant job training opportunities to the people that need it most.’
The installations and job training have value that extends beyond the immediate participants and beneficiaries. ‘This is not an investment for SunEdison, but rather an investment in the growth of the solar industry,’ she says.
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.