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Prioritizing diversity in the energy transition, plus Star Wars puns with Secretary Granholm

The DOE wants to involve the entire community in the energy transition. It's do or do not; there is no try.

Eric Wesoff
Eric Wesoff
6 min read
Prioritizing diversity in the energy transition, plus Star Wars puns with Secretary Granholm

On May 4, Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm, U.S. Department of Energy representatives and members of the solar and environmental justice communities discussed efforts to improve the solar workforce's performance on a composite metric they referred to as JEDI: justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

Serious about JEDI goals, despite the puns

Game day for this DOE event was Star Wars Day, and that mean puns, most of them emanating from the enthusiastic and totally committed Madam Secretary. (Editor's note: Excerpts follow, edited for brevity and clarity. Some puns might have been lost in translation.)

Becca Jones-Albertus, director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office, noted that the Force is a source of unlimited energy that binds the galaxy together. In introducing Granholm, Jones-Albertus intoned, "I will hand you the lightsaber, Madam Secretary."

(Seriously, it went on like this for an hour.)

Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm: On this Star Wars Day, I'm so excited to be able to talk about JEDI: justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in the workforce. We may go a little overboard with the Star Wars puns today, so see if you can catch them — all groans are permitted.

By making the investments in research and development, manufacturing and deployment that President Biden has called for in the American Jobs Plan, we can ignite new industries that have the power to create jobs at light speed while equipping communities in every pocket of the country with technologies that will generate lower energy bills, clean up air and water, and improve our health. There's no mind trick here. Just think about it. If we want to make our buildings more efficient and manufacture electric vehicles that can dominate the global market, if we want to put out solar panels where it's hot, and put up turbines where the wind blows, we'll need millions of Americans getting to work, and that means renewable resources like solar that offer not just a ray of energy, but an opportunity, and we are laser-focused on making it an opportunity for JEDI.

From my time serving as governor of one of the country's biggest union states, I know how much difference a good-paying union job can make, and for working families, it's a lightsaber. That's why this administration's first-order priority is making as many good-paying jobs as possible. We want anyone to be able to comfortably raise a family while they pursue a career in clean energy. But the dark side we have to acknowledge is that over the last decade, clean energy jobs have gone overwhelmingly to men, particularly to white men. So we know we won't just Luke into a workforce that looks like America — that's thinking about it in Alderaan ways. This administration won't make that Wookiee mistake: Achieve equity, we must. And we're not just talking the talk; we're walking Ewok.

Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association: "We have increased the number of people of color, the number of women, the number of veterans in our workforce, but it's certainly not reflective of the diversity of our country — and that is a huge focus for us."

After the murder of George Floyd last year, we really shifted our focus to the justice piece, understanding that this is a much more systemic, racist institution we're dealing with, rather than just bringing up too few new people into the industry.

We worked really intentionally with a bunch of different stakeholders to create environmental justice policies that are infused throughout our policy work so that when we go to the Hill, or when we go to state capitols and regulatory commissions, those communities and those principles are inherent in the work we're doing, which is different than the way we approached it in the past.

Kelly Speakes-Backman, acting assistant secretary and principal deputy secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the DOE, discussed the Bronzeville community microgrid on the South Side of Chicago. She noted that the DOE's Solar Energy Technologies Office "supported the development of the technologies that are going to make this microgrid work," adding, "It's an example of a community solar project designed to serve a low-income community."

Juan Rodriguez, project management at Illinois utility ComEd: "Bronzeville is an area of significant importance in Chicago, also known as the 'Black Metropolis.' There are 600 families living there — about 1,000 customers. In the scenario that the entire state [suffers a power outage], this project will keep the lights on. The PV system size is 750 kilowatts of alternating current about 900 kilowatts of direct-current power, along with a 500-kilowatt-hour battery. We want to integrate what we are building into the community."

Van Vincent, CEO of VLV Development, the veteran-owned solar firm behind the Bronzeville project: "We worked with local labor to bring about the generation portion of the Brownsville microgrid project. It provided jobs, and it provided economic growth. It matters to us that Black people have a job; it matters to us that Hispanics have a job. It matters to us that people in the communities are not the last group to to be welcomed into this new green economy. It made a difference for people to look out their windows and see it in their community."

1,100 building retrofits in NYC's poorest neighborhoods

Donnel Baird is CEO of Brooklyn-based BlocPower, a company that has retrofitted over 1,100 buildings in New York City's poorest neighborhoods.

Donnel Baird: At BlocPower, we focus on analyzing, financing and installing and then monitoring smart, healthy green equipment for urban buildings and low-income buildings that are traditionally financed with underserved — which basically means no banks will lend to them. There are millions of [these buildings] across the country. And we figured out how to develop a new structure of financial products that allows us to finance these projects at scale. And then we work with veteran-, women- and minority-owned construction firms to install equipment in these buildings.

And so we serve them with clean energy.

This idea that different stakeholders have, whether it's venture capitalists and private equity with banks, or the clean energy infrastructure investors, they all view low-income communities as not being worth figuring out.

Because I come from a low-income community, I have a totally different view.

I know that these communities are stuffed with talent. They're stuffed with infrastructure — it's crappy infrastructure, but it's there.

And I know that it's going to take trillions of dollars to replace it. [As with any] tremendous business opportunity, you have to learn the methodologies and processes of accessing capital from these different pools across our society and across the business world. So that was a primary challenge or secondary challenge that we have to navigate, subsequent to the fundamental misperception that these communities aren't worth serving.

I think that we can set up these urban clean-energy co-ops all over the country, in the same way that Franklin Delano Roosevelt set up rural electric co-ops in the 1940s. [These] will allow low-income community members, whether they live in a home or own their own home, [to] own a piece of a clean energy infrastructure project in their city or in their neighborhood. And in that way, they can start to generate some revenue and build some wealth as that infrastructure project becomes more and more valuable.

Energy justice at the Department of Energy

Shalanda Baker is the the first-ever deputy director for energy justice at the Department of Energy.

Shalanda Baker: From where I sit, there are a few key issues that we really need to tackle. One is the extraordinary energy burden that communities around the country face. We know that low-income communities are often paying upward of 10 percent, 20 percent, sometimes even 30 percent, of overall household income just to keep the lights on.

The gap with respect to solar ownership and solar access is another issue that I'm excited to tackle here at DOE. The third major initiative that I'm excited to work on is introducing pathways to access capital so that we have businesses that are coming from so-called disadvantaged communities that can participate in this energy transition, as well as communities that lack access to traditional finance. They need to be able to have access to capital in this transition.

The last big initiative that I'm excited to work on is really about wealth creation. And that includes creating pathways for new jobs and businesses in this transition.

We'll close with parting words from Secretary Granholm: "Like all of us at DOE, we need to keep a pulse on what the public needs so that the local government officials and community organizations and homeowners who are tuning in — Yoda ones we need to hear."

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DOE has a number of JEDI-centric information requests and funding opportunities in Workforce Development Strategies, Equitable Access to Community-Based Solar and the SolSmart Program.  

Environmental JusticeDOEJennifer Granholm

Eric Wesoff

Eric Wesoff is a prominent industry journalist, analyst, writer, consultant, speaker, thought-leader and expert witness in the renewable energy field.