Solar panels offers a bright spot in bleak jobs market

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A few years ago, Charles Stewart was having trouble finding steady work as an electrician in Washington D.C. Stewart had the skills necessary to do the work, but he couldn’t catch a break, and the poor economy only made his situation worse. Feeling helpless, he decided to pursue a second career where he could translate his skills and make a good living doing something he enjoyed.

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Stewart started doing research on nuclear engineering jobs and came across information about solar energy. Something about this career option struck a chord in him, especially because it meant that he could have a vocation that would allow him to contribute to the well-being of the environment. He decided to move to the Big Apple to pursue his certification in solar panel installation, After graduating from Bronx Community College, which is part of the “City University of New York (CUNY) System”:, he launched his own business, Peace and Solar Inc., and he has been happily busy making a difference ever since. And now, through divine intervention and a grant from the State of New York, he has added St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Brooklyn to his roster of clients.

“What interested me about solar energy is the fact that we can capture energy from the sun and we can use it for everyday household energy and power,” said Stewart. “So that’s the path I wanted to take, I wanted to preserve the environment, not destroy it. And although it was difficult to start my business from scratch, my first customers gave me a chance, and then I just continued to get projects by word of mouth, and my business has been growing ever since.” To know more about solar energy, check out companies like Energy Renovation Center – commercial solar.

As the nation recovers from a poor economy and staggering unemployment rates that are at Depression-era levels for African Americans nationwide, Stewart’s story illustrates that green collar jobs are becoming a viable career option for some in the black community. During the economic downturn, the solar industry flourished, and companies employed more than 93,000 workers in 2010. And with the country expected to become the world leader in solar energy, this could provide some good news for those who need it most — black Americans.

In late June, TIME magazine reported that new solar power doubled globally last year and that “in the first quarter of 2011, installations of solar power increased 66 percent over the previous year in the U.S. Just last week the Obama administration offered a $1.4 billion loan guarantee to help fund what will be the world’s largest rooftop solar project, which put at least 733 megawatts worth of photovoltaic panels on commercial buildings across nearly 30 states while creating 10,000 jobs.”

According to the National Solar Jobs Census 2010, solar companies employed 93,502 workers as of August 2010, and they are expected to add nearly 24,000 jobs in 2011. And while other companies had a hard time hiring new employees and were experiencing extensive layoffs and cuts to employee benefit and pension plans, half of all solar companies in the U.S. expected to create new jobs over the next 12 months.
Tria Case helped develop the Center for Sustainable Energy, an educational partnership between the CUNY system and Bronx Community College that offered one of the first solar panel installation programs in the nation to offer a North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners certification, which is the “gold standard” for PV and solar thermal installation certification.

The Center is also home to several other green career development programs, which range from certification programs to bachelor and master’s degree offerings in subject areas like geothermal and geo-design principles, energy efficient building and automotive technology.

Case was also instrumental in the creation of the New York City Solar Map, a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy and the CUNY system, which is a web-based tool that details the solar potential of the city’s buildings. The massive effort involved flying a plane over the city several times using a radar system to collect data on every single rooftop in the five borough area to determine the amount of rooftop space suitable for solar power installations.

“You can put your address into the Solar Map and it will tell you how much solar you can place on your roof and how much that solar will cost, what incentives you’re eligible for and what your return is on that investment,” said Case. “Efforts like the Solar Map and other tools that are being put in place to let the public know what’s being done and what’s possible are important make sure that these green technologies are really leveraged.”

The Solar Map research found that two-thirds of the more than one million buildings in New York City could be used their rooftops for solar power and if they were, it would mean output levels that could meet half of the entire city’s energy needs at peak times. It would also double the entire nation’s solar capacity, and create even more job options for the thousands of unemployed individuals who are seeking opportunities for advancement.

In spite of all this sunny news, solar is still one of the most expensive means of generating electricity and it accounts for just one percent of the nation’s energy. Getting consumer buy-in is also challenging because of the high out-of-pocket costs and long-term return on investment. Stimulus funding, which helped propel the field forward by leaps and bounds, is now running out, and the tax credits that bigger solar companies grew accustomed to are now on the verge of expiring.

The downward spiral of the U.S. economy will also take its toll on the growth of the sustainable industries, but there are still many organizations out there that are trying to ensure that the pathway connecting the unemployed with green collar jobs doesn’t get detoured.

Green For All, a national organization founded by former Former White House environmental official Van Jones and led by Chief Executive Officer Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, is committed to working with the business, government, labor, and grassroots communities to create green jobs in impoverished areas. Ellis-Lamkins says that the job opportunities are out there, and that individuals need to think beyond solar and wind turbine energy, and look to new and exciting sectors like water management and food distribution as potential future career fields.

“With a new green economy, we’ll have to start making things again, an opportunity that we are not seeing in other industries,” she said. “We used to make things in this country, and we had workers who had high school diplomas who could get manufacturing jobs that paid decently. Then we changed to an information-based economy and began to lose those middle-class jobs. The great thing about green economy is that we are going back to our roots of being a viable manufacturing-based economy, and it’s also creating middle-class jobs, which is the best hope for black community to gain employment without polluting the environment.”

A recent Brookings Institution study revealed that there are some 2.7 million workers working in green jobs, and that these positions paid 13 percent higher than other middle-wage jobs such as construction, transportation and administrative roles—$46,343, compared with $38,616 for all other occupations across the country. The report also found that the clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole.

Which takes us back to Charles Stewart, who is currently working on the solar installation project at St. Luke’s Church. The congregation stands to save thousands on energy costs, and will decrease their reliance on electrical grid by a quarter of their yearly usage. The project also allowed the business owner to hire three workers in the process, including Charles Gillyard, who is one of the many black men that was laid off in recent years and who is inspired by his employer. Stewart hopes that his story continues to encourage others like Gillyard to consider green collar careers as a pathway out of unemployment and into a brighter future. Homeowners who are ready to install solar energy systems can use NewJerseySolarInitiative here.

“You have to look forward to the green arena, be as technical as you can and obtain all the education you can about green and renewable energy because not only will it provide clean energy or help to provide clean energy to consumers, but it will also educate others and help the community be uplifted.”