As the US works toward producing more renewable energy, recent solar industry data points to the impacts when women and other underrepresented groups are offered a “classroom in the field,” or hands-on solar career experiences. The rapid growth in solar energy presents a challenge for the industry — what are the best ways to teach the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technicians who will implement solar technologies on a greater scale and integrate these resources into energy systems? Making renewable energy technology and job training accessible to traditionally underserved communities is necessary for a successful transition to clean, renewable energy that includes everyone.
Trends in Solar: Recent and Future
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) determined that the US installed 2.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar PV capacity in Q1 2018 to reach 55.9 gigawatts (GW) of total installed capacity, enough to power 10.7 million American homes. This represents a 13% increase year-over-year. Total installed US PV capacity is expected to more than double over the next 5 years, and, by 2023, over 14 GW of PV capacity will be installed annually.
Alongside this pattern of solar industry growth comes the major challenge to educating future renewable energy professionals. There is an essential need to build a conduit from the classroom to solar installation worksite. Since solar is an emerging field, many students have a limited understanding of how to translate engineering theory into actual solar practice. Professional role models who offer their personal insights and solar industry experience narratives can offset those gaps and create a robust and diverse solar energy workforce.
STEM Mentoring as Example of Solar Industry Experience Impacts
A 2017 investigative study on the powerful impact of mentoring partnerships between pre-college students and young engineering professionals in Hartford, CT, found that partnerships provide a strong foundation for a pipeline that includes women and underrepresented minorities. Based on the principle of cross-age peer mentoring and industry-based mentoring, the study found that diversity-aware mentor recruitment strategies can:
- Cultivate and train a corps of diverse mentors
- Develop a suite of informal mentoring activities
- Apply and generate knowledge about impact of effective mentoring strategies in overcoming barriers to women and underrepresented minorities in engineering
Diverse engineering professionals were recruited from local tech companies and trained to hone their mentoring skills. Mentoring assistants, female, and minority undergraduate engineering students were recruited to help during mentoring sessions. The results? Students who participate in industry-based mentoring are 55% more likely to demonstrate more interest and confidence in STEM subjects as well as 25% more likely to show greater interest in these careers as a life pursuit.
Sample Mentoring Models for Solar Industry Experience
The SEIA is the national trade association for the US solar industry, and it embodies the innovation and entrepreneurship that defines solar energy. Recognizing that hands-on experience installing PV systems, along with smaller bench scale activities, is illuminating, the SEIA Women’s Empowerment Committee has forged a commitment to educating and advancing careers for women in the solar industry. That quest includes mentoring future solar leaders and establishing pathways and career opportunities for women.
The mission of the SEIA Women’s Empowerment Committee is threefold:
- Recruit, retain and promote women within the solar industry
- Increase diversity and amplify women’s voices in industry public forums and events
- Partner with and support the work of organizations that strive for diversity within the solar industry
“We are at an inflection point in the deployment of clean energy technologies,” Brandon Middaugh of Microsoft says. “It’s a great time for women to be starting a career in this space.”
“Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing job markets of any industry in the country. More than 250,000 Americans are working in the solar industry, and opportunities are certainly out there for recent grads of all backgrounds. Lately we have put more emphasis on understanding our diversity challenges and the industry has conducted new studies analyzing the current environment. In 2013, just 19 percent of solar workers were women, but that number is now 27 percent. We definitely have more to do to ensure that our workforce is fully representative of America as a whole, but we have been clear about our intent to enhance diversity, and we have taken steps such as expanding recruitment of diverse candidates for solar jobs from management to installation to project engineering and everything in between.” – Dan Whitten, vice president of communications for SEIA
One Nonprofit’s Approach to Diverse Solar Industry Experience
The solar energy sector in Colorado has created new opportunities in electricity generation, research and development, and manufacturing. According to the SEIA,
- Colorado ranked 11th in the nation for installed solar capacity, with 925.8 MW of solar energy installed as of 2016.
- Colorado is home to more than 454 solar companies, employing about 6,000 people throughout the state.
- More than $510 million in Colorado solar investments were made in 2016.
- Average installed photovoltaic system prices in Colorado have fallen by 64% in the last five years.
One nonprofit in Colorado has acknowledged how workplace and classroom culture, persistent stereotypes, and gender-specific pressures are all reasons for lack of solar industry careers for women and other underrepresented groups. GRID Alternatives Colorado installs rooftop, community, and multifamily solar electric systems for income qualified households and affordable housing providers throughout the state. It provides families with needed savings and trains Colorado workers for jobs in the growing solar industry.
On a recent Saturday at a solar energy farm near Platteville in Weld County, Colorado, 65 women came to learn more about the solar industry and how solar facilities are built. GRID Alternatives hosted the “We Build Weekend.”
“This is a great medium for them to find a mentor, or a peer mentors, and develop a network within the industry,” said Anna Bautista, the Vice President of Construction at GRID Alternatives. “In order for us to continue to innovate, we need to continue to have diversity of thought.”
The solar facility, which is being built with assistance from GRID Alternatives, will complement Boulder Housing Partners’ work, which helps to make living in Boulder possible and affordable, regardless of income. “The benefactor in this project is a deserving community and, in the process, this is a community building as well for an underrepresented demographic in the industry,” Bautista said.
GRID’s vision of a successful transition to clean energy that includes women and underrepresented groups is found within a framework of social, economic and environmental justice. GRID Alternatives is committed to:
- Advancing an equity agenda both within GRID Alternatives and in the energy industry and policy arenas by examining and addressing systemic inequities; seeking out and amplifying the voices of underserved communities; and expanding access to solar energy and career and leadership opportunities
- Creating an inclusive, welcoming environment on job sites, in workplaces, and board rooms where staff, volunteers, trainees, clients and community representatives are heard, supported, respected, and valued
- Building a culture of equity and inclusion that supports and fosters diversity, reflecting diverse communities at all levels of the organization, especially leadership, and promote these values within the energy industry. Focus areas for diversity work include,race, class, gender, sexual orientation, education level, veteran status, dis/ability, and those impacted by the criminal justice system
The voices and leadership of communities on the front lines of the solar industry are key to creating equitable and lasting renewable energy systems. The hands-on solar site experiences “helped us get into perspective and get that hands-on research and hands-on learning,” said Addie Arnold, who is pursuing a Global Social Sustainable MBA with a focus on solar energy at Colorado State University.
The GRID field trip to the solar energy farm near Platteville was her first time working at a construction site. She’s in a college program that culminates after 6 years of study.
“We’re installing everything ourselves, and it’s really interesting. Just have to make sure they’re aligned and screw them in. So it’s pretty fast,” Arnold remarked. She considered the role of solar industry mentors on the job site and added, “It’s been really empowering today to be able to talk to them and get encouragement.”
In the solar industry as a whole, only 27% of the workforce is female. In solar farm construction, that number is even lower. After the hands-on experience under the guidance of solar industry mentors, Arnold added, “I’m definitely going to be applying for some solar jobs.”