Groundswell recently partnered with NYMBUS, a minority-owned management consulting firm, to assess minority and woman-owned business participation in the solar sector in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The results underscore both the growing opportunities in solar development and the urgent need for the industry to confront striking disparities in who benefits from them. The research is intended to shed light on participation trends within industries in order to identify where positive, inclusive change can be made.

We recently sat down with the president and CEO of NYMBUS, Terrell Richmond, to learn more about his observations and reflections on the result findings.

Terrell Richmond
Terrell Richmond, CEO of NYMBUS

On the state of the solar marketplace.

The solar marketplace has experienced exponential growth on a global, national, and local scale, yet regardless of the trend we still found a gross lack of representation at every level of the solar supply chain. With such a vast space to create employment opportunities and wealth, we aspired to research the current solar economy with the intent of providing a visual depiction of its current status and the availability for future diversity. Baltimore and D.C. have unique opportunities to create shared assets, establish innovation centers and foster mentor relationships that ultimately create paths to prosperity for all members of every community.

On leaving minority- and woman-owned businesses behind.

The findings in our research were pretty stark. Only 3 out of 1678 certified small businesses in D.C. were registered as minority- or woman-owned full-service solar firms. That means women and minority solar firms make up less than one percent of certified small businesses.

In other words, they’re not participating significantly within the solar value chain, and where they are participating, it’s at the lower end as it relates to procurement and construction, as opposed to higher paying careers in development and finance. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics wages in the solar segment for  finance are, at minimum, three times higher than wages in solar engineering and procurement.

So wage disparity is one thing. The other consideration is that often the developer has the financial proficiency and the backing to not only build the project, but also own it. Developers that are also owners enjoy both the financial benefits from building the project and the long-term wealth generation that comes from owning the asset. The statistics reflect that very few minorities and women are involved at this level of the solar value chain in order to reap the more lucrative benefits of solar development.

On why early involvement in the solar economy matters.

Minority inclusion within solar is a problem throughout the country, and it’s largely because of the nascency of solar and because of the complexity of the value chain.

The district just gave preliminary approval to a climate bill, requiring that 100 percent of the energy that is consumed has to come from a renewable source by 2032, so we know there’s obviously an environmental impact. But there’s also an economic impact, and not just from an economic development perspective but from a consumption perspective. The cost of delivering solar is less than conventional energy. A lack of participation in solar development prohibits minorities from creating economic value within their own communities and owning an asset that can generate long-term wealth.

It’s sort of like the advent of information technology or the combustible engine. Renewable energy is transformative and is going to be in high demand, and legislative changes are further stimulating demand.

To not have equal access at the outset can mean you’re shut out forever.

On the way forward.

To address our findings, we made several strategic recommendations. Accessing the data relevant to solar or small business participation is very difficult. There’s a need to create a more centralized data source to reflect as well as to understand the trends in not just the solar economy of small minority communities but the business trends of solar in general.

Other recommendations included: expanding awareness of the solar business model; forming a government and industry partner coalition to increase the participation of minority and woman-owned contractors and suppliers; increasing entrepreneurial capacity through mentorship; and exploring the launch of innovation centers to foster entrepreneurship and connect emerging minority and woman-owned businesses to business development opportunities associated with utility and university supply chains.

This is a complex space, and there’s this interdependence between local legislation and policy as well as access to capital and financing to capitalize on solar opportunities. It’s a very nascent market, and it is complex, with legislative and financial nuance. There are numerous companies that have the capacity, but don’t have the awareness. By engaging with local governments, community leaders and industry professionals, we can collectively take necessary action to make sure growth in the solar industry demonstrates increased equity and inclusion.

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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