Commentary: A call to action on race and equity in the clean energy industry

Lorie Shaull / Wikimedia Commons

Bee Hui Yeh is the founder of the Power of We and an advisor at Plan C Advisors.
Jacob Susman is an impact private equity investor and founder/CEO of the renewable energy startup OwnEnergy.

The fight for clean energy is the fight for a better tomorrow: the right to clean air and water, affordable and reliable electricity, and better transportation. But for too long we’ve ignored a central question: for whom? A monolithic population? Or, more precisely, for the communities of color hurt first and worst by the impacts of climate change?

Nearly a century after the construction of the arsenal of democracy helped drive the U.S. from the depths of the Great Depression, as we find ourselves amid a pandemic and economic crisis, the prospect of a clean-energy economy puts us at the cusp of a bright new industrial age. It’s one that can reshape our grid, our businesses, and our lives, generating millions of reliable, well-paying jobs to build a cleaner, safer, more resilient, and more energy-secure America.

But we can only truly achieve this future, and overcome the obstacles and deep-pocketed opponents that still stand in our way, if we are inclusive of all. That means intentionally including communities of color in the rebuilding of our clean-energy economy. 

People of color account for more than a third of the U.S. population, but in 2014 made up less than 16 percent of the staff of environmental organizations. Five years later, the share of jobs held by people of color in fact declined

This staggering statistic rings painfully true in the clean-energy industry: While 13 percent of Americans identify as Black, less than 10 percent of America’s clean-energy jobs are held by Black workers. In the solar sector, the share is close to 7 percent — roughly the same as the oil and gas industry we so regularly chastise. The number of women in the clean-energy workforce, meanwhile, remains less than 20 percent. 

Clean energy and cleantech may be among the fastest-growing sectors in America, with lower barriers to entry and higher wages. But the jobs that we’re touting, the promise of stability and prosperity that they hold for American families, are still almost exclusively handed to a single privileged group of Americans: white men. 

Many of us know this firsthand. In our combined three-plus decades in the industry, in countless conference rooms and convention halls and board meetings and executive searches, we can say that virtually every person sitting around the table has been white. We’re certain the same has been true for all but a few of you reading this, too.

This isn’t for lack of caring: our sector at times advocates for environmental justice. But the cause is often eclipsed by the short-term business metrics that drive the industry. In fact, clean energy is arguably held to a higher financial standard when unseating its fossil fuel incumbents, creating greater pressure to financially perform — and therefore more demand to ignore anything but the bottom line. Too often, our clean energy industry has succumbed to that pressure: We haven’t done what we need to do to create change within our own organizations. 

The good news is we know not only the causes of this problem, but also many of the solutions. Best of all, ours is a community of innovators who care deeply about making a difference: We take on the big challenges. We innovate. And we don’t settle for the status quo.

This is a call to action — one that firms of any size can join. It starts with taking a hard look at where justice falls among your company’s values, something organizations of any size can do. Those insights can inform the tactics that follow: diversifying leadership and reimagining the talent pipeline, reallocating resources to training and education, reconsidering internship programs, exploring apprenticeship opportunities, and pursuing mentorship roles.

This must mean looking beyond the Harvard MBAs and MIT engineering programs, to the entire galaxy of historically black colleges and universities that so often go ignored both in recruiting employees and in seeking teaching positions. 

There are internal steps, as well: creating safe spaces for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) colleagues to candidly share their lived experiences, following through on employee concerns, and, throughout, leading by example and providing resources for others to do so. And you don’t have to go it alone: BIPOC-led firms specializing in diversity and inclusion can help our industry; your fellow clean-energy leaders doing the difficult anti-racist work are here to help, too.

This deep-seated problem of inequity also requires looking in the mirror and acknowledging how we as leaders have helped perpetuate the status quo, despite the good work we’ve done for the planet, for people, for job creation, and, yes, for profit. Only then can silence and past harm be authentically addressed. Only then can our businesses start to center equitable outcomes in the way our product teams develop solutions, our organizers co-create with communities of color, and our businesses operate as corporate citizens driving a just transition.

The clean-energy renaissance can serve the full breadth of our nation, ensuring a stable, secure and prosperous future for all Americans, especially the Black and Brown Americans who are disproportionately bearing the brunt of our climate crisis. The clean-energy future is here — it’s now up to us to make that future inclusive of all.

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