Sun raining jobs on Oakland, Richmond

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The sun has been creating more jobs than before: Solar jobs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties increased in 2016, according to The Solar Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that advances solar energy use.

According to a report that the foundation released in March, the number of solar jobs in Contra Costa County rose to 1,966 in 2016, an increase of 71 percent compared to the previous year. In Alameda County, the figure rose 60 percent to 2,763 jobs. The study defines solar jobs as those in the construction and installation of solar equipment, as well as non-installation jobs such as manufacturing, sales, distribution and project development.

Overall, these counties, together with three others in the Bay Area—San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties—saw solar jobs increase by 67 percent to 26,046 solar jobs in 2016 compared to 2015. In its report, The Solar Foundation said that California is the top state in the nation for solar employment, as the state created more than 100,000 jobs, which paid more than $16 billion in salaries and benefits last year, a 32 percent increase from 2015.

In Richmond, sunlight is now more valuable than in most other cities, said Alex DiGiorgio, a “green collar” worker. Green collar jobs, DiGiorgio said, mean “any career that is working towards improving environmental quality,” whether that’s installing solar panels, performing energy efficiency retrofits or designing a plan to let the community know about renewable energy, which is what he does for local renewable energy supplier Marin Clean Energy.

“My team and I work with local leaders and community groups to develop a comprehensive and customized outreach plan, so that we can make sure everyone knows about new renewable energy options that they didn’t have before,” he said. Marin Clean Energy options range from 50 percent to 100 percent renewable energy from wind, solar and carbon-free resources, as well as conventional sources of energy.

“Richmond was the first community outside of Marin to join MCE. It was really a unique and beneficial partnership because by joining MCE, Richmond was able to access more renewable options for energy,” said DiGiorgio. “Richmond has a lot more control now over energy decisions.”

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt sits as the vice chair on Marin Clean Energy’s board of directors. The board, Di Giorgio said, includes elected leaders who approve rates, programs and policies. “So a lot of times, the program is described as ‘energy democracy,’” he said.

Berkeley-based The Rising Sun Energy Center is another organization that has worked to promote clean energy in Northern California since 2000. The renewable energy education center offers programs that aim to fight the effects of climate change, and provides economic opportunities to those who need it by organizing green jobs training.

“We are very excited about the potential of solar employment. Solar installation jobs have become good, stable, living wage opportunities for the low-income and underrepresented communities we serve,” said Abbey Leonard, director of development and marketing for the Rising Sun center. Participants in the center’s training programs include people of color and women who want to work in industrial trades.

“We’re heartened to see local solar companies begin to make progress in creating opportunities for under-served communities and see the value in investing in a diverse workforce,” said Leonard.

But the solar industry doesn’t only create jobs. According to The Solar Foundation’s economic impact report for last year, “One solar-related job supports 1.36 jobs elsewhere in the California economy, while every $1 spent on solar generates an additional $0.94 in spending throughout the state.”

Alexander Winn, program director at The Solar Foundation, wrote in an email that this means that solar jobs added $26.6 billion to the gross domestic product for California in 2016, and that additional spending power and economic activity supported these other jobs.

Winn wrote that the rise in solar jobs boosts the US economy overall. “In 2016, one out of every 50 new jobs created in the US was a solar job. Specifically in California, solar workers represent one out of every 392 people in the whole state,” he wrote.

Competitive solar pricing and strong demand are the critical factors in the growth of California’s solar workforce, according to Winn. “While greater customer awareness has bolstered sales and attracted new solar users, the key driver behind increased installations is the dramatic drop in the cost of solar since 2010,” he wrote.

In 2016, California installed 5,060 megawatts’ worth of solar equipment, up 123 percent from 2015, according to Winn, and the state’s total installed capacity ranked first in the United States at 17,048 megawatts.

The increase in solar jobs has a huge positive impact in communities across Alameda and Contra Costa counties, said Mara Ervin, program manager at GRID Alternatives. “GRID Alternatives is based in Oakland and provides no-cost solar to households in Contra Costs and Alameda Counties at or below 80 percent of area median income,” Ervin wrote in an email. “This year, we plan to install for 170 low-income households throughout the Bay Area in addition to completing a few larger-scale projects to benefit low-income renters.”

But Ervin wrote that while the declining cost of solar equipment has helped spur growth in the industry and in hiring, there remain many barriers to entry for low-income communities in adopting large-scale solar energy. Women, people of color and veterans are still underrepresented in the industry, she said. “We hope to see the industry continue to expand employment,” Ervin wrote.

And there are some other growing pains as the state adapts to the increased use of solar energy. “The most pressing challenge is managing times when we have more electricity being generated than can be used. As energy can’t be stored in large amounts at this time, it has to be used almost instantaneously upon being produced,” said Steven Greenlee, spokesperson for the California Independent System Operator, or ISO. ISO is the nonprofit organization charged with managing the state’s power market and transmission system. It is also developing techniques to manage the state’s power grid, turning the old grid into a modern, flexible system.

Greenlee said the wholesale market keeps energy supply balanced with demand. “At this time, this almost always works to reduce generation output and balance the system; only rarely do we have to manually intervene in the market and arbitrarily order plants to shut down,” he said.

“But we are expecting that the state’s utilities will procure about 15,000 megawatts more of renewable resources by 2030 in order to meet the Renewables Portfolio Standard, which says the utilities must buy renewables to cover 50 percent of their retail power sales by 2030,” Greenlee continued.

With this expected rise in renewable resources—a potential disruption to the supply–demand balance, Greenlee said two of the solutions are finding demand to use the excess energy and developing technologies for energy storage. “In addition, the California Public Utilities Commission is exploring how to modify time of use rates to incentivize power use during excess energy times, which now mostly occur during the mid-morning to early afternoon hours,” said Greenlee.

While it could be true that there may be glut in solar energy, DiGiorgio of Marin Clean Energy said the focus should be on the nature of the supply. “We want to make sure that that the supply is as renewable as possible. It has to be most cost-effective and has the least carbon impact,” he said.

Meanwhile, environmental organizations are continuing to press Bay Area cities to transition to using more renewable energy. Locally, the Sierra Club has been working with city leaders in Oakland and Richmond to encourage them to join the list of cities transitioning to 100 percent clean energy.

In a press release issued on March 28, Sierra Club leaders wrote that both cities are “well positioned to do so” because Richmond is a member of Marin Clean Energy, while Oakland is joining power supplier East Bay Community Energy. The Community Choice program Marin Clean Energy creates clean energy jobs by developing local renewable energy infrastructure, while East Bay Community Energy is slated to invest in local renewable facilities and provide clean energy jobs to residents of Alameda later this year.

Luis Amezcua, chair of the executive committee of the Sierra Club Northern Alameda County, said the solar industry has the potential to create jobs from the development of renewable resources, such as electric vehicle infrastructure and new generation facilities. “We are working with both cities and the communities to get a commitment,” Amezcua said.

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