Let the sun shine

Solar Richmond provides green jobs for social good
December 7, 2009

Training for green-collar jobs has become easier to find as concerns with climate change and alternatives to fossil fuels grow, but Solar Richmond, a nonprofit founded in 2006, is more than a training program. Serving the underemployed in the stressed city of Richmond, California, it involves not just teaching the craft of solar power systems, but also helping program participants with job-seeking skills and creating jobs where they can build their resumes.

In mid-October, the vestry of St. John's Church in Oakland, California, approved a plan to contract with Sun Light & Power and Solar Richmond to install solar panels at the church.

"One of the reasons we turned to Solar Richmond," said Bob Davidson, co-chair of the parish's Ecology Group, "was that we really responded to the social aspect of the program, enabling young people to find another path to make their way in life."

The choice was a natural next step for St. John's, where a broad understanding of the connections between environmental concerns and social justice has grown in recent years.

Making 'green' affordable

Michele McGeoy, executive director of Solar Richmond, focuses on making solar installations affordable for congregations and small nonprofits, which often balk at the capital costs. She wants to enable such organizations to say "we are walking our talk" of environmental and social values, she said.

By facilitating access to grants that pay for labor and low-interest loans that pay for materials, Solar Richmond can offer congregations a plan that saves them money on their power bills, stabilizes their rates and involves no up-front capital.

Initially, McGeoy explained, congregations that participate in this program would save about 5 percent on their power bills. But this will increase over time, as the rate at which they purchase power through the nonprofit will increase more slowly than the rate of the Bay Area's Pacific Gas and Electric.

Solar Richmond's work with Episcopal congregations began with St. Paul's in Walnut Creek. Because of the success of that project, McGeoy was invited to speak at the September 2008 Commission for the Environment Liaison conference of the Diocese of California. Among the 45 congregational liaisons who heard her speak was Phil Matthews, representing Church of the Resurrection, Pleasant Hill.

At the time, Matthews was involved in selecting nominees from the nonprofit sector for a national award given by his law firm, Duane Morris LLP. "We were already boiling down the list," recalled Matthews. He was so impressed that, as McGeoy was running out the door of the cathedral for a meeting back in Richmond, he got her card and nominated her.

"What intrigued me about it," Matthews said, was that "she was doing something that was first of all committed to the environment, getting away from fossil fuels, but in a city with high unemployment, creating green-collar jobs. To me it was like connecting all the dots."

McGeoy won the 2009 Duane Morris Leadership Award, a $25,000 grant and pro bono legal services for a year, helping her develop an approach that not only is attractive to customers, but also will help sustain the Solar Richmond program.

Providing experience

By retaining ownership of the panels and maintaining them, Solar Richmond will be able to give graduates of the training phase ongoing work experience while relieving congregations of the necessary work of keeping their systems in top working order.

McGeoy noted that her organization's workers need more experience if they are to compete for good full-time jobs in the solar-power field.

During 14 weeks of training, participants spend seven weeks with Richmond Build on carpentry and blueprint reading, three studying energy efficiency and then four on solar, during which they do two two-day jobs installing live systems on low-income owners' houses. "That's a taste, but not enough experience so that they can be a contributing part of an existing solar crew," McGeoy said. More experience would "move the interview from the desktop to the rooftop."

McGeoy said she hoped that Solar Richmond's model would not only be engaged throughout the Bay Area, but also spread to other parts of the country. And she dreams that it might attract investment from church endowments and foundations that would in turn enable more low-interest loans.

Her work "shows a lot of entrepreneurial spirit, a lot of altruism, a lot of forward-thinking problem solving," said Matthews. "I think she has an intriguing blueprint to solve multiple social, economic and environmental problems. You put a dollar in here, and you are doing several things at once."

Related Topics: