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Sustainable: Diversity a key to growing the clean energy industry | Finance & Commerce

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To be successful, the great clean energy transition now underway in Minnesota will need more robust engagement and better training opportunities for minority, female and veteran workers.

A Clean Energy Economy Minnesota (CEEM) report published earlier this year showed the industry is slightly more diverse than the state, with 72.5% of clean energy workers being white, 17.5% Hispanic and 11.3% one or more races. Yet industry leaders believe that the sector will grow 8% next year and likely continue that pattern for several years, leading to greater demand of workers that will have to come from nontraditional and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC).

Just consider the weighty documents called “integrated resource plans” that publicly-owned energy companies file every few years with the Public Utilities Commission. For example, Xcel Energy’s long-range plan calls for the construction of thousands of megawatts of wind and solar. On a smaller scale, Minnesota Power, Otter Tail Power and even the cooperatively-owned Great River Energy have similarly aggressive plans to close coal plants and add solar, wind, battery storage and other resources.

State officials, labor leaders and clean energy companies prefer those jobs go to Minnesotans rather than people coming from out of state, which has happened on big energy jobs in the past. But without a larger workforce, that will be a challenging climb.

COVID-19 has slowed progress on the clean industry’s attempts to reach out to minorities, women and veterans. But bright spots are emerging, including a new training center in North Minneapolis and a training program expected to start next year in Ramsey County. In addition, wind and solar associations, along with clean energy organizations, have begun inclusion and equity initiatives. Other training classes are available at state colleges and through nonprofits.

Gregg Mast, executive director of CEEM, called the clean energy job growth “a bright spot in Minnesota’s economy for many years” and highlighted that the percentage of minorities in the industry “slightly exceeds” that of the overall workforce. But few women work in clean energy and that has become a persistent issue, he said.

Another challenge has been a lack of workers, with nine of 10 clean energy businesses reporting difficulty hiring staff. “To address this, we need to continue to attract people of all backgrounds and experiences to the industry,” he said. “Each person brings unique insights and skills to our shared work of decarbonizing all sectors of our economy. Supporting registered apprenticeships and investing in training and education programs that are accessible to everyone has never been more important.”

A recent luncheon panel discussion at the Gateway Solar Expo focused on diversifying the industry. Sponsored by the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (MnSEIA), the two-day conference brought together the state’s solar leaders to hear experts speak on regulatory issues, new technology, market trends and other issues. The audience for the conference looked more inclusive than in past years, an encouraging sign of changing times.

One problem with training opportunities has been they rarely exist in neighborhoods that need it most. For example, Renewable Energy Partners founder, president and CEO Jamez Staples developed a clean energy training center in North Minneapolis because other options were miles away in the suburbs. The IBEW, an association of electrical workers, has a training facility in St. Michael and Century College has a program in White Bear Lake, he said.

This year Staples received a more than $2 million grant to finish building out his Regional Apprenticeship Training Center. He’s started Northgate Development to train adults and Minneapolis Public Schools’ students in skills required for the solar and clean energy industries. The building, formerly a state workforce center, sits at a location accessible by bus or car and in a neighborhood struggling with high unemployment.

The training center boasts a large rooftop solar installation and an innovative battery project, among the first in the country to test the concept of a virtual power plant. As Staples sees it, trainees can learn in the classroom and learn by doing. Two nonprofit partners also use the center for classes. “We’re focused on bringing the training to the neighborhood,” Staples said. “We saw the opportunity to focus on solar training but also expand to other industries such as energy efficiency and stormwater management.”

Red Lake Tribe member Robert Blake founded Native Sun Community Power Development to train more Native Americans for clean energy careers. In addition, he owns Solar Bear, which has done several projects on buildings on the grounds of the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota.

Blake has worked with the Ramsey County Workforce Innovation Board, which plans to offer solar and energy efficiency training in spring 2022. In addition, he has spoken at Red Lake Nation schools about solar energy and received an enthusiastic response.  “It’s been really exciting to see the kids get their heads wrapped around this,” Blake said.

Another panelist, Eric Pasi, told the story of how his interest in clean energy is driven partly the fate of people whose lives will be endangered by rising sea levels and other climate calamities. His father grew up in Tonga, a South Pacific Island less than 10 feet above sea level.

After graduating in 2007 from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Pasi applied to several clean energy companies before Impact Power Solutions (IPS Solar) hired him. Today, as the company’s chief development officer, Pasi seeks to help others seeking the kind of career he has created. Last year he published “Green Wave: A Guide to Success in the Green Recovery” to help job seekers in their quest, offering interviews with industry leaders, advice on entrepreneurship and ideas on how clean energy fits into the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Though Pasi believes opportunities in clean energy exist for BIPOC community members, he wants to see more people of color starting businesses. “I really think that we need to start looking at our policies in a way that fosters the growth for people of color within the business community,” he said.

Other panelists pointed out that clean energy includes more opportunities than installing solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. Channon Lemon, vice president of economic development for the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, said strategy, marketing and financing are essential parts of clean energy companies.

With the highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the country, the Twin Cities has “a lot of talented people that are prepared to walk into a business and make a substantial difference, maybe as a chief marketing officer, an operations leader, a social media expert,” she said. “All these are critical to the success of companies.”

Lemon and Pasi said clean energy could be a good field for people who have served time and want to contribute. IPS Solar hired a “returning citizen” several years ago and Pasi said he’d become a close friend. “People shouldn’t be tied to a bad moment in their lives,” he said. “We deserve to give everyone a shot.”

Panel member Jim Vickers Jr, president of Business Technical Services in Ohio, said simply thinking about moving toward a diverse workforce no longer cuts it in a time when corporations seek societal change. “Leading organizations are no longer asking us to consider diversity; they’re telling us that that’s what they expect if you want to do business with them,” he said. “And they are setting a template and they are being very, very creative. The solar industry will have to learn how to collaborate with everyone.”

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