Workforce Training Supervisor Dominique Leake, of GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic, shows Solar Works DC trainees how to pull a solar panel up to the roof after it’s hoisted up the ladder on a rope. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

On a sweltering July day, solar installation trainees—under the watchful eyes of multiple supervisors—lifted a solar panel to the roof of a two-story Petworth home. The panel, which was thin and more than five feet in length, rose smoothly upward along a ladder, held by a single rope. 

For some of the trainees, that afternoon—July 13—was only their second time actually working on a solar installation after spending the first two weeks of the Solar Works DC paid training program learning in the classroom. The people handling the panel at the top and the bottom of the ladder looked intently focused.

Malachi Nicholson, a Solar Works DC trainee, on the job site July 13. (Robert R. Roberts/ The Washington Informer)

“I’ve worked in construction a lot—I’ve done roofing jobs, I’ve worked for a masonry company, I’ve cut bricks,” said trainee Malachi Nicholson, 41. “That’s a lot more tedious work, and more rough on your body. This is more mental, but still, you have to be able to utilize your body—so I think this is a better field for me.”

It’s a field Nicholson plans to stay in after he completes Solar Works DC. The paid program, which lasts either six or seven weeks, combines classroom learning and on-the-job experience with job placement support and opportunities to obtain industry-specific certifications. It’s implemented by nonprofit solar group GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic and overseen by both the Department of Energy and Environment and the Department of Employment Services. 

Nicholson listed off several certifications he had gotten through the program, including OSHA 30, Six Sigma White Belt for problem solving and CPR training. 

“It’s like a mic drop in the [job] interview,” he said. “These are things that you wouldn’t get just going to a job at an entry level, and when you present that on your resume, it really speaks volumes.”

Creating Careers, Cutting Energy Bills 

Leake and a trainee work together to secure the panels to the roof of a Petworth home. (Kayla Benjamin/ The Washington Informer)

One of the two homes the trainees worked on last week belongs to Linay Foreman, a native Washingtonian born and raised in Petworth, who works in facilities management at American University. She’d heard from a friend about the opportunity to get solar panels added to her roof at no cost through the city’s Solar for All program, which supports Solar Works DC. 

After her second daughter left home for school a few years ago, Foreman found that even though she was now “a semi-empty nester,” she was still paying too-high energy bills. 

“One month, my Pepco bill was over $300, and it was just me in the house,” she said. “One of my girlfriends recently had solar panels installed, I think back in January… Her bill went from like $180-something—when she got the bill in June, her bill was $17.” 

Energy bill savings from solar panels are not always that drastic, especially outside of the summer months. But Solar for All advertises a 50% cost reduction in bills for its participants, who qualify for the program based on income requirements (no more than 80% of DC’s median income). 

Foreman also had her roof repaired so that it would be ready for the solar panels. This service, too, was free through the program. 

Intersecting Problems, Interconnected Solutions

Elijah Perry, executive director of GRID Mid-Atlantic, said that helping with home repairs is part of the organization’s “holistic approach” to creating economic development in underserved communities. He described the impact as two-fold: lowering energy burdens for low-income homeowners while simultaneously connecting community members with opportunities in the solar industry. 

Plus, swapping fossil fuel-generated energy for renewable energy sources like solar is crucial for solving the climate crisis. 

“There’s the environmental component, but there’s also an economic component,” Perry said. 

“We all know that Black and brown communities… are those most affected by climate change. So because most of our homeowners are in Black and brown communities or underserved communities, and our trainees are in those communities as well, we’re responding to [their] direct needs.” 

Since 2014, over 360 individuals have gotten training through Solar Works DC, and more than 100 have gone on to work in the solar industry. Still, Perry said the workforce program’s impact is blunted by solar companies that fail at genuine inclusion even while trying to “check the box” when it comes to racial representation.  

“If you ask me how many of those trainees [who got solar jobs following the program] are still in the solar industry? That number is a lot less,” Perry said. “A lot of our trainees have gone through the program, they’ve applied for jobs, and then ultimately they were placed in roles where they were picking up trash.”

Perry said he wants the solar industry to start having more honest conversations about the lack of diversity and failures to create inclusive cultures in solar companies. Almost the entire team at GRID Mid-Atlantic is Black, reflecting most of the District residents the organization serves. 

From Perry’s point of view, working to improve representation in the solar industry goes hand in hand with GRID Mid-Atlantic’s other goals. He sees addressing climate change, providing career opportunities and lowering energy costs as interconnected ways to advance environmental and economic justice. 

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Perry said. 

“There’s the savings that the homeowner will receive from the solar,” Perry said. “And then also, with the workforce training program, we’re actually educating folks in the community on solar deployment.”

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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