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Fred Underwood of Underwood Solar Future evaluates the solar power system he installed on a home in Apollo. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/)
Martin Rafanan, a former minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, spent decades organizing mostly black, low-income workers at St. Lewis. Since moving to the Hill District in 2018, Rafanan’s focus has been on social justice.
“For most of my work, I didn’t pay as much attention to the environment as I think I should have,” Rafanan said. “So the last couple of years I’ve been doing a little bit more to learn more, educate myself and take baby steps in the neighborhood.”
Those small steps include Rafan and his wife protecting the Audubon Certified Backyard Habitat and turning it into a haven for birds, butterflies and other struggling creatures. Rafan people also want to install solar panels in their house. But when Rafanan researched local installers, he saw a problem: It’s hard to find a local solar panel installer that’s minority-owned or has a diverse workforce.
“This is an area where we hope to see significant growth in the coming years,” Rafanan said. “And what is the percentage of black participation in this industry? I was just curious.”
Blacks are underrepresented in renewable energy in the Pittsburgh area, just like in the United States. Yet the region is home to people of color who are working as activists, educators and laborers to address this issue.
The Pittsburgh area is aware of this problem and initiatives are underway to address it. However, those involved in the subject readily admit that it is complex. Given the importance that the green energy sector is likely to have in the future, the inclusion of people of color and other marginalized groups is a major concern.
According to the 2021 Pennsylvania Employment Report, blacks made up about 9.7% of Pennsylvania’s clean energy sector, although they made up 11.6% of the state’s population in 2020. Asians, Hispanics, and Hispanics are also represented in the clean energy space, if not better than their share of the state’s total workforce, the report shows, but a September 2021 report by E2, a national environmental advocacy group, found that the jobs increasing. for Latinos or Hispanics, “mostly had low-paying energy jobs such as construction workers.”
Women make up only 22.6 percent of the state’s clean energy sector, despite making up about half of the state’s population.
Joliet Portlock is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Sustainable Pittsburgh and serves on the advisory board of The Black Environmental Collective. She explains that the problem is the result of several different systemic problems, including the lack of access to transportation and childcare for those seeking education.
“It’s not just part of the solution that will solve the whole problem,” Portlock said.
Portlock said he believes companies should have initiatives to promote diversity in their businesses, including working with local organizations that have strong community ties. According to her, robust and affordable training programs are a must.
“We want to have a society where all people can participate fully and have equal access to opportunities to prosper,” Portlock said. “And if you’re talking about an industry that has grown … these are industries that are poised to expand. So if we don’t extend this opportunity to everyone, we won’t be able to take full advantage of it as a region.”
According to the 2021 Pennsylvania Clean Energy Industry Report, renewable energy jobs in Pennsylvania decreased by approximately 7.4% from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts believe the industry will soon expand nationwide thanks to initiatives championed by President Joe Biden. Global electricity consumption from renewable sources is expected to grow by more than 60% from 2020 to 2026, according to the IEA, a global source of sustainability data and analysis.
Fred Underwood works 24 hours a day, two days a week, as a full-time firefighter for the City of Pittsburgh. During part of his stay, he ran a solar panel installation business called Underwood Solar Future. About a decade ago, Underwood sounded like solar would be a lucrative business in Pennsylvania.
Fred Underwood talks with a customer, John Doyle, after inspecting the solar system installed at his home in Apollo. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/)
“When Ed Rendell said he was going to put solar panels on every building, I became interested in solar panels,” Underwood said.
He founded the company in 2009 after taking solar courses in Georgia, Massachusetts and Colorado. He also put his experience in electrical engineering to good use during his 26 years in the military.
Asked several renewable energy experts in the Pittsburgh area if they knew of any local minority green energy companies, and each of them pointed to just one: Underwood Solar Future.
He prioritizes more than two decades as a firefighter over the pay and benefits that have helped put his four children through private school and at least four years of college. Some money from a local veterans group helped keep his solar business afloat.
“Without funding, it’s sporadic,” Underwood said. “I did one system last year and two the year before.”
In general, there are aspects of running a minority-owned business that create problems. He said the process of maintaining certification as a minority company proved to be incredibly tedious due to the sheer amount of paperwork involved. He said he wasn’t aware of any specific barriers in the clean energy industry that affected him as a black man, but noted that he had only done solar work for two minority clients.
“I lost my contracts, what do you have because of my color? Maybe so,” Underwood said. “I’m not sure.”
Carrie Moseley, political director of the activist organization 1Hood Media, was the BlueGreen Alliance’s regional program manager for seven years. He has high hopes for the region’s green energy sector, but notes that marginalized people are often left behind in the sector for various reasons.
“Sometimes people may not be able to invest that much time in a long-term … certification program,” Moseley said. “Those kinds of certifications that are useful if you’re particularly interested in energy efficiency or the solar space.”
There are several local organizations that have attempted to provide green energy training programs. He points to the Pittsburgh Institute’s A. Philip Randolph” “Breaking the Chains of Poverty” in partnership with the United Steelworkers, which offers training programs with a focus on sustainability.
Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] also offers renewable energy training with an emphasis on engaging a diverse population. CCAC hopes to partner with New Sun Rising in May to launch a program that will offer 10 to 12 people 40 hours of training over two weeks at no cost to participants. According to Debra Roach, CCAC’s vice president of human resource development, CCAC was drawn to work with New Sun Rising because of its focus on serving a diverse population.
“One of CCAC’s strategic initiatives is to provide opportunities to the diverse populations we serve, and that includes diverse populations,” Roach said.
George Ackerman directs the New Sun Rising training program. He said half of the selected participants will be from the Triboro Ecodistrict, which includes Millvale, Etna and Sharpsburg, and the other half will be from neighborhoods served by the South Hilltop Men’s Group.
“We wanted to focus with the South Hilltop Men’s Group on getting people who have traditionally been disadvantaged to get these certifications and get them good jobs,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman also said New Sun Rising has funds to assist participants who may need financial assistance for transportation or lack of employment.
CCAC provides 20 hours of preparation for the TABE test, a widely used test for adults that includes reading, writing and math and is required for admission to the program.
“We want to be able to provide an opportunity to a diverse population, and some of the population we serve may not be eligible for the program because they can’t pass the elementary education exam,” Roach said.
Moseley is part of Mayor Ed Gainey’s transition team and is focused on infrastructure. He hopes to help the Gainey administration use the $18 billion made available through the federal Infrastructure Act to create jobs and protect the environment in inclusive ways.
“With the new [city] government, with the federal government focusing on infrastructure, I think it could create a great opportunity for Pittsburgh to really build on the work that’s been done over the last 10 to 15 years and really grow.”
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