Instructor Duane Cunningham, right, coordinates with student Yusef Salaam to finish the wiring of the newly installed solar panels at Sankofah Community Garden in Richmond.
Instructor Duane Cunningham, right, coordinates with student Yusef Salaam to finish the wiring of the newly installed solar panels at Sankofah Community Garden in Richmond. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

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RICHMOND, Va. — The hands-on solar panel lesson for rookies at Sankofa Community Orchard in mid-January might have been a bust if student Mary Lewis hadn’t shown up with her A-game — and her F-150 pickup truck.

When the team was short a power drill, Lewis scurried to her trusty toolbox. Then, for a tape measure. And yet again for exterior screws.

The 58-year-old’s preparedness proved integral to completing the installation of a six-panel array designed to power the water irrigation system at the urban agricultural venture on the city’s south side.

Lewis, owner of a home repair business, was one of 15 enrollees in a week-long class this month geared at diversifying the clean energy workforce. 

Richmond resident Richard Walker brainstormed the free solar training to ensure that Black residents and other marginalized communities aren’t left behind as renewable energy booms in Virginia. It’s a more recent offshoot of a nonprofit, Bridging the Gap, the 63-year-old founded more than a dozen years ago.

In June 2019, he debuted the training program as an environmental justice experiment in a church basement in majority-Black, rural Union Hill to counter Dominion Energy’s proposal to construct the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through Buckingham County.

“We’ve been remiss in educating folks about green energy in our neighborhoods,” Walker said about his early attempts to heal a rift over the gas pipeline in a community where his family has deep roots. “This is where people need to be exposed to these possibilities.”

He moved subsequent trainings to the state’s capital, where Walker has partnered with Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building and its Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities.

Lewis, also a real estate agent and investor, is enthusiastic about sharing what she absorbs with her network of personal and business connections.

“This is something I believe in,” Lewis said. “Solar just seems like a natural next step.”

Student Mary Lewis, owner of a home repair business, is intent on folding solar power into her professional repertoire. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

Lewis and her classmates spent most of the week of Jan. 10 hunkered down in a training room at the Annie Giles Community Resource Center near downtown Richmond sponging up photovoltaic fundamentals from newly minted instructor Duane Cunningham.

The intensive course covers the ABCs — arcs, breakers, and charge controllers — but also delves into the intricacies of components, sizing principles, mechanical design, performance analysis, and troubleshooting.

Last year, Walker hand-picked Cunningham because of the 46-year-old’s electrical engineering degree, IT-heavy background, and ability to translate technical gobbledygook into comprehensible concepts for laypeople. 

The California native settled in Hampton, Virginia, three years ago to begin work as a data center manager for a defense contractor affiliated with Langley Air Force Base.

Cunningham was receptive to Walker’s overture because overseas travel for the military through 2016 had exposed him to how countries as varied as Germany, Australia, and Kuwait were embracing renewable energy. The two met because Cunningham also volunteers for a separate, youth-oriented nonprofit in Buckingham County. 

Walker had recruited author and professional trainer Sean White, a Californian with decades of international experience, to teach the initial Solar 101 class in Union Hill. As well, White taught follow-up classes in November 2019 and last October.

Cunningham enrolled in the October class and absorbed every detail. To qualify to teach, he had to ace the gold standard exam offered by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. Passing it gives newcomers clout and access to jobs anywhere.

What troubles Walker is that of the 30-plus graduates in the first three sessions, Cunningham is the only graduate to even attempt the exam.

Enrollees have consistently been a cross-section of men and women ranging in age from their early 20s to late 50s. Some have college degrees and established careers, while others had struggled in the job market after being released from prison.

“That’s still part of the learning curve,” Walker said. “We don’t have a placement rate yet because the glitch is the folks we get in the training class don’t seem to have the confidence to take the test.”

Duane Cunningham takes a moment in his Richmond classroom to prepare for the next day’s lesson. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

‘I can see solar as a career path’ 

Cunningham is determined to alter that pattern. 

“I grew up in Compton, so it’s not foreign to me where they have come from,” Cunningham said about his early exposure to hardscrabble California. “I have family members who are incarcerated and friends who have lost their lives making bad decisions.”

Each day, he sandwiched pep talks between reviews that summarized lessons into bite-size nuggets and dissected sample exam questions.

“It all begins up here,” Cunningham said, tapping his temple. “They all have the ability to pass the test. I told them that if I’m going to give you 100% here, I need to know you gave yourself a chance.”

Student Reggie Davis is receptive to such an opportunity. He figures it’s kismet that the invitation to join Cunningham’s class arrived when he began noticing how rooftop solar was flourishing in his Richmond neighborhood.

Student Reggie Davis said he “can see solar as a career path instead of just a job.” Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

For the last five months, the 53-year-old has honed his landscaping skills as part of the city’s workforce development program. It’s geared to help unemployed and formerly incarcerated residents transition to jobs.

“I’m grateful to be exposed to this,” said Davis, who buried his nose in his notes each evening as a refresher. “Now I don’t want to limit myself. I can see solar as a career path instead of just a job.”

He appreciated Cunningham’s willingness to apply solar lessons to real-life situations.

“Yes, we’re learning a lot, but once I got the verbiage down, it’s really not that hard,” he said. “Duane’s reviews made me more comfortable. He wanted this information to stick.”

Davis, raised in Florida, New York, Illinois, and Louisiana, landed in Richmond in the late 1980s to major in business at Virginia Union, a historically black university.

That degree — and a starting spot on the basketball team — never materialized as a “detour” dealing cocaine and other drugs turned into convictions that sent him to state prison for close to 12 years.

“I’m through with that life,” he said. Since his 2003 release, he worked at Hewlett-Packard for a decade before starting his own lawn care business.

Davis knows that despite the solar industry’s earnest efforts to attract more people of color, it’s rare to find Black men such as himself in that workforce.

He praised Walker for punching through those barriers.

“We need people like Richard to not only bring us into a new world,” he said about his classmates, “but to bring them, the solar developers, to our world.”

Cunningham had helped to install the first three panels at Sankofa last autumn. Davis piggybacked on that start by applying his new knowledge to add another trio of flush-mounted panels atop a shipping container and a shed.

Duron Chavis, food activist and executive director of The Happily Nature Day, a nonprofit, helped trainees install a solar system that will power the water irrigation system at Sankofah Community Orchard in Richmond. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

The farm, situated on roughly two acres of parks and recreation land near Reedy Creek, is designed to address social and racial imbalances from the ground up, said Duron Chavis, food activist and executive director of The Happily Nature Day, a nonprofit.

Enormous colorful murals serve as backdrops for dozens of fruit trees, fruiting shrubs, vegetable plots, and a beekeeping operation. The harvests are destined for the community. Gardeners distribute 4-by-6 foot raised beds and soil so neighbors can grow their own food too.

Chavis’ goal is to be a model of climate change resiliency by incorporating low-impact systems to collect rainwater, manage stormwater runoff, and harvest energy from the sun. 

Carving a niche in central Virginia

Personal setbacks motivated Walker, a professional mental health counselor, to invent Bridging the Gap as a job conduit for Virginians wrestling with addiction, incarceration, and chronic homelessness.

After serving concurrent, two-year federal and state prison sentences for cocaine possession and fraud years ago, nobody would hire him. And he faced such rejection with a bachelor’s degree.  

Walker opted to fold green workforce development and environmental justice into his nonprofit’s mission after watching yet another Black community — his own — be saddled with the threat of polluting fossil fuel infrastructure.

Richard Walker, founder of Bridging the Gap. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

He can trace at least five generations of his family back to Union Hill, where free Blacks and former slaves settled in Buckingham County after the Civil War. It’s about 70 miles west of Richmond.

In January 2020, a federal appeals court put the kibosh on a compressor station that had divided neighbors when Dominion sited it in Union Hill. About six months later, the utility giant pulled the plug on the entire questionable pipeline project that would have bisected Virginia for roughly 300 of its 600 miles. It would have pumped hydraulically fractured gas from West Virginia to North Carolina. 

While Walker’s solar training went dormant during the pandemic, he couldn’t bear for it to be a casualty of COVID-19. 

A large grant from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation allows him to issue $1,000 scholarships to each enrollee. More recently, he’s attracted smaller sums from sources in Alexandria and Charlottesville and is intent on pursuing federal dollars.

If the General Assembly approves an $80,000 appropriation allotted to the Virginia Community College System as part of the state budget by Del. Jeff Bourne, a Democrat from Richmond, Walker would have access to that money for more training. 

Longtime backers include the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, and programs under the University of Richmond umbrella.

“I want to carve my niche in central Virginia as the program that provides free training,” said Walker, aware that competitors charge enrollees. “If I can get full-time instructors, what I can do is limitless.” 

Students enrolled in Bridging the Gap’s solar training install solar panels atop a shipping container at Sankofah Community Orchard in Richmond on Jan. 13. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

Hiring White was expensive but gave the class credibility. Now that Walker has permission from White to adopt and adapt his original class curriculum, he can save some money and promote home-grown talent. As well, he has added a unit on energy efficiency to keep the class fresh.

To dovetail with the eight to 10 classes he proposes offering annually in Richmond, he’s collaborating with Bridging the Gap colleagues to open a Green Jobs Workforce Center this spring in Buckingham County’s Dillwyn, near Union Hill. Its wheelhouse will be training in solar, plumbing, electrical wiring, fiber optics, and heating and air conditioning.

“Solar has taken flight, but related jobs haven’t been open to communities of color and low-income Virginians,” Walker said about addressing inequities. “Training can lead to decent-paying jobs in these fields.”

Lewis, the recent graduate with an established career, isn’t intrigued by “getting on people’s roofs to install solar panels,” but is toying with the idea of sales.

Her desire to explore solar’s intricacies in Walker’s class was piqued because she put a four-panel, 100-watt system on her garage roof several years ago. She’s thrilled by the drop in her electric bill and, now, has the know-how to expand. Next, she wants to install a ground-mount system to power her house in Chesterfield County, south of Richmond.

In class, the go-getter peppered Cunningham with questions from her front-row seat.

“It has been a super class because it’s gone so deep and I’m kind of sorry the week is coming to an end,” Lewis said. “I wish I would’ve known all this 15 years ago because I’d be reaping the benefits now.”

Lewis is accustomed to navigating around obstacles. For instance, 15 years ago when she owned a dump truck company, she accepted a dare from one of her drivers to earn a commercial driver’s license. She practiced and studied until she passed the test. 

That same tenacity is motivating her to sign up for the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners exam. Walker’s program covers the fee and students have 10 tries to pass the 85-question, multiple-choice exam.

When reached by phone the week after the class ended, Lewis was headed to a church to replace a bathroom urinal. She’s been diligent about studying, she said, and is scheduling a test appointment later this month.

“When I start something, I’m going to finish it,” Lewis said. “I’m just not a quitter.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.