By Frey Brownson
I grew up in North Dakota, along the northern edges of the vast plains in the middle of this country. Out there, with the fields stretching as far as the eye can see, you pay extra attention to the sun in the sky and the wind blowing the clouds from horizon to horizon. Long roads might mark the lines of travel across that region, but the bright sunshine, the hard winds, and the shifting clouds would connect all of us together.
The community I grew up within was weird, iconoclastic, and scattered across the plains, but we knew that we all had to take care of each other. Against this background, I have spent my life integrating community, equity, and lessons from the arts into the solar industry. No matter how different we might be, we rise fastest and furthest when we rise as one.
The clean energy industry is poised for a revolution. The scale of solar electric power generation in the US has doubled nine times since the year 2000.
No other industry has held this high of a growth rate for this long. More than three million Americans now work in the renewable energy, energy efficiency, and clean vehicle sectors.
Many of them live and work in places like where I grew up, in the communities that can most benefit from good jobs and big investments. This is good news, but it’s not enough: climate scientists say that in order to restore stability to the climate, we need to transition to a 100% clean energy economy as quickly as possible. Achieving the goal will require clean energy companies to take a look in the mirror.
Despite all of its successes in the past twenty years, the solar industry lives with a level of disruption that would be fatal in many more well-established industries. As the policy space, the economics, and the structure of the field shifts dramatically, many companies find themselves scrambling to weather multiple shocks per year.
They’ve handled this in part by grasping for economies of scale, building companies large enough to weather three to five year cycles of boom and bust. But in my fifteen years as a mentor, educator, and research scholar in the solar energy field, I have watched that level of intensity result in a rigid system. These companies then struggle to retain the kind of younger, more-diverse talent that can serve as a company’s institutional memory.
Employee churn can kill business growth in a single firm by delaying services, losing institutional memory, and breaking team morale.
A solar firm must develop amazing relations with their clients and customers to remain competitive. The loss of key contracting and engineering personnel who would have built and sustained those social connections means customers suffer, and firms lose ground to the steep competition. Right now, 88% percent of employees are ready to leave for a better opportunity, a cycle that can cripple the competitiveness of older firms.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Solar Foundation has shown that more diverse companies with diverse leaders are 70% more likely to capture entire new markets in emerging states. Companies that are gender and ethnically diverse are more likely to outperform the competition, and be more successful. And yet the solar industry is comprised of over 73% white male employees — the highest in the renewable energy field.
Science and engineering alone cannot create a future with clean, distributed energy. We need buy-in from communities to adapt to a new way of living.
When you have a company that looks more like the communities you’re working with, it’s easier to get those communities bought into a vision that looks more like farming the sun than the extractive industrial practices of the past. Science and engineering provide the paint and the brush. It’s up to us to make the painting.
The clean energy space in 2021 looks so much like the spaces within which I have lived my life.
As a solar professor in a department dominated by fossil fuel instruction, I had to fight to justify my field as a valid topic for research. Because my field was small, we all had to lean on each other for support.
In budding spaces, failure always looms right around the corner. We don’t know what our 100% clean energy future will look like. To me, that’s exciting. We get a chance to reinvent the world: a world of beauty and abundance and collective good, with jobs that respect human dignity and an end to the hierarchies of the past. Let’s make the most of it.
Dr. Frey Brownson is cofounder of HelioTactics, LLC., a consulting firm that specializes in incorporating active practices of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) into clean energy companies.
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