Probing the lack of solar training opportunities in some of L.A.‘s historically Black neighborhoods

Community leaders say residents need more options to be able to reap the economic benefits of clean energy.
By Ingrid Lobet

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More than 230,000 Americans work in the solar industry. In California, the country’s solar capital, it’s close to 70,000.

But in a 60-square-mile swath of Los Angeles that is home to the highest proportion of Black residents in the metro area and has a total population of 750,000 residents, there are no solar or clean-technology training schools.

We see how solar and cleantech is booming,” said Saun Hough, vocational services administrator at Shields for Families, a community nonprofit. Yet we still don’t have a training center south of the I-10 freeway,” which has long been an unofficial demarcation line for the neighborhood, he said.

This gap between one of California’s historically Black communities and one of its fastest-growing industries is deeply troubling to Hough and other solar industry and workforce training experts. In this empty spot on the map, they see signs of exclusion from the skills training that launches people into well-paid careers and attracts cleantech investment.

The consequences could be significant if Black people are shut out of attaining the skills needed to participate in the energy transition — and from reaping the resulting wealth creation, they say. Black entrepreneurs could also lose the opportunity to build cleantech companies as part of a community, which can alleviate some of the stress and isolation of starting a business.

There is a pervasive concern that people in this area will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities of the energy transition in time. If local colleges don’t offer programs, then students may not hear about these possibilities during career day. Homes in these neighborhoods will be built with solar rooftops, but community residents may not get the work. By the time people do get trained, the field is already dominated by other players,” Hough said.

Grid Alternatives
, the nation’s largest nonprofit solar installer, offers hands-on solar training and installation in communities most affected by climate injustice, including South Los Angeles. But classroom courses are also important to teach the concepts underpinning solar power, design and energy auditing.

Demand is high for Grid Alternative’s hand-on training, some of which is paid, indicating strong interest even in places where people aren’t as frequently exposed to the careers.

Our programs are always full, and we have waiting lists,” said Adewale OgunBadejo, workforce development manager at Grid Alternatives. But the nonprofit, large as it is, cannot train an entire workforce alone.

Solar entrepreneurs like Kenneth Wells are eager to hire people from these L.A. neighborhoods. After experiencing trauma in juvenile detention and spending time in prison, Wells received basic job-skills training through youth program Homeboy Industries. He took temp jobs and participated in Grid Alternatives’ reentry internship program as well as solar classes at East Los Angeles Occupational Center, one of several respected classroom training programs elsewhere in the metro area.

I found purpose knowing I was not only contributing to the energy independence of the customer but reducing our carbon footprint on earth,” he said.

Wells rose from serving as regional construction supervisor at Sunrun to becoming CEO of his own firm, O&M Solar Services, giving him an opportunity to invest in people the way others invested in him. But he is profoundly aware of the scarcity of training options.

I am literally hiring people with no experience and training them on the job” to meet high demand for installers, he said.

Location matters for connecting South L.A. residents to training. Those with access to a car or who live near the metro line which runs through South L.A. can make it to classes at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, a community college at the northern boundary of the neighborhoods that make up South L.A. The school offers four different renewable energy programs: photovoltaics, solar thermal, renewable energy generation, and transmission and energy efficiency. Each leads to an associate degree or a certification.

David Ysais, communications manager at LATTC, said most students at the school come from South L.A. But he agrees that location is an issue. If you need to take a bus to get to the training center, which many people would, the trip could easily take an hour, a long commute for those balancing a full-time job or struggling with childcare costs. And that route passes by other community colleges that don’t offer the same programs.

Let’s make sure we are creating the opportunity within this community,” Hough said. When you have three or four colleges in your community and still cannot find this training and have to go outside [the area], that is where the problem lies.”

In addition to the nearby community colleges that do not offer solar, there are also four skills training centers in the area, including some that offer electrical training. But they don’t offer solar or renewable energy training.

What’s needed is money that is earmarked for renewable energy classes so those funds can’t be used for anything else, OgunBadejo said. Genevieve Liang, who examined the lack of training opportunities in the area as a fellow at E2 in 2018, found another missing piece is that local school administrators must educate themselves and their staff about how to pursue and bring these resources to their campuses.”

Compton College, Los Angeles Southwest College and Los Angeles Harbor College did not return calls or emails in response to a request for comments.

A spokesperson for Grid Alternatives, whose outreach efforts are dispersed across the U.S., said the organization has noted a lack of training opportunity in some other majority-Black cities including Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday, the Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office announced it will scope out how best to support workforce training in renewable energy. DOE will host a series of meetings on its plans for targeted training.

There is a lot of discourse about this being the opportunity of a generation, OgunBadejo noted. There is widespread talk of transforming our economy and our country, and that things will never be the same again. So we need to make sure this is happening for our local communities.”

(Lead photo: Cristina Boemio) 

Ingrid Lobet currently divides her time between reporting on climate solutions and investigative work on climate, energy and environmental health.