The Solar Industry is Booming, but Most of the Rewards only go to White Men

May 8, 2019

The solar energy industry is booming. But according to a new report, the industry is overwhelmingly white and male, highlighting the diversity problems plaguing the field.

Renewable energy jobs are typically lauded as a source of economic growth and environmental justice under climate proposals like the Green New Deal, but advocates worry about the emerging disparities. The report, published Monday, comes as black workers at one solar power company say they’ve faced racism on the job.

According to the 2019 U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study, a survey of almost 800 solar employers and workers, senior-tier employees in the field are 80% male and 88% white. Conducted by the Solar Foundation and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the study reflects improvements in how companies track employee demographics. But it also shows jarring trends in an industry that is rapidly expanding.

Median wages for men in the solar industry are $29.19 per hour, while for women they rest at $21.62. Only 37% of women feel they are successfully moving “up the career ladder,” compared to 52% of their male peers. And for people of color, referrals are a challenge, with only 28% of Latinx and black employees finding their jobs through word-of-mouth; for their white counterparts, that number is 44%.

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed praised their work environment, in a more positive finding for the industry. But the study also notes that only 36% of solar companies track employee demographics and diversity, posing a challenge for data collecting.

Organizations committed to equity within the renewable energy sector expressed some dismay at the numbers.

“I am so thankful for the solar industry’s ongoing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but we still have a great deal of work to do to make the kind of progress we need to see and to take full advantage of the opportunities and economic potential,” said Kristen Graf, executive director of Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy, in a statement.

SEIA and the Solar Foundation also acknowledged the discrepancies posed by the data and announced a “diversity and inclusion best practices guide” meant to help the industry address the problem.

“I felt it was important to make this a public issue — to challenge others to stand up and account for the work they are doing,” Abigail Ross Hopper, SEIA’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.

Problems connected to diversity deficits as identified by the report are already playing out within the industry. Six black men previously employed by the New Jersey-based Momentum Solar recently filed suit over allegations of racism, including pay discrepancies and repeated slurs.

Filed in Brooklyn, New York, the suit seeks class-action status and highlights the treatment of the men while working at Momentum Solar’s warehouse in Plainview, New York. The complaint accuses the company of fostering “a work environment permeated with vile racism” and the men say they endured repeated comments from supervisors and other staff, with at least one saying he was called the “N-word” by coworkers.

The men also claim they were paid less money than their white counterparts. That includes an alleged instance where a black employee and plaintiff, Tevin Brown, says he was paid $15 an hour without a raise while a white coworker with no experience was paid $22 an hour.

The plaintiffs also say they faced retaliation when they complained, enduring threats from managers. At least one man, Garreth Murrell, alleges that he was fired via text message after complaining to an executive above his supervisor.

Momentum Solar argues that the men “were terminated for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons including unacceptable workplace behavior, fighting, poor performance, failure to show up for work and violations of material company policies and procedures.” The company has said it will defend itself against the allegations.

The solar industry has faced similar problems before. Last year, a black man formerly employed by Utah-based Vivint Solar sued the company over what he said was a racist work environment.

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Such instances pose a challenge for a sector that environmental advocates have touted as a job creator.

The Green New Deal resolution, introduced in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), argues that massively investing in renewable energy would create new jobs across the country, in a major boon to the economy. That proposal has been touted as an environmental justice mechanism that would center frontline communities, prioritizing both former fossil fuel workers and the people exposed to pollution and other toxins, typically people of color and low-income people.

With many states adopting legislation that pushes for clean energy while creating jobs, diversity issues within fields like solar are likely to remain a point of concern.

In at least one state, Illinois, advocates hope a proposed bill, the Clean Energy Jobs Act, will help further expand the industry and make it more diverse; the proposed legislation aims to compliment the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act. Under the Clean Energy Jobs Act, people of color and other marginalized groups would be trained and recruited for jobs within the wind and solar sectors.

And with climate change increasingly being viewed as a pressing issue for Americans, figures within the industry say they are working to address the emerging inequities.

“There are many exciting job opportunities in America’s growing solar industry, and these jobs should be accessible to all,” Andrea Luecke, executive director of the Solar Foundation, said in a statement Monday. “Given the importance of the solar industry in building the energy infrastructure that is needed to confront the challenge of climate change, the solar industry has a tremendous opportunity to serve as a diversity and inclusion workforce model for the wider economy.”


Teaser photo credit: 2019 Solar Works DC team in Northeast DC

E.A. Crunden

E.A. Crunden is a climate reporter at ThinkProgress, writing mostly on environmental justice and the green scene, and occasionally covering world affairs, immigration, vulnerable populations, and so-called "Trump country".

Tags: Diversity, Green jobs, solar industry