Martin Rafanan, a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church minister, spent decades as an organizer of primarily Black low-wage workers in the St. Louis area. After moving to the Hill District in 2018, Rafanan’s attention remained focused on social justice. 

“During most of my work, I haven’t been paying as much attention to the environment as I think probably I should have,” Rafanan said. “So over the past couple years, been doing a little more to learn more, be educated and to kind of take small steps in the neighborhood.” 

These small steps include Rafanan and his wife shepherding an Audubon Certified Backyard Habitat, turning it into a sanctuary for birds, butterflies and other embattled creatures. The Rafanans also want to have solar panels installed on their house. But when Rafanan researched local installers, he realized a problem: It’s difficult to find a local installer of solar panels that is minority-owned or has diverse employees. 

“This is an area that hopefully will grow substantially in the coming years,” Rafanan said. “And what’s the participation of persons of color in this industry? It just was interesting to me.”

Black people are underrepresented in the Pittsburgh area’s renewable energy sector, just as they are across the United States. Still, the region is home to people of color working to fix this issue as activists, educators and workers. 

There’s an awareness of this issue in the Pittsburgh region, and there are initiatives in place to help address it. However, those who work on this issue readily admit it’s complicated. Because of how important the green energy sector will likely be in the future, including people of color and other marginalized groups is a high-stakes concern.  

What does green energy diversity look like locally?

Black people accounted for about 9.7% of Pennsylvaia’s clean energy sector despite accounting for 11.6% of the state’s population in 2020, according to the 2021 Pennsylvania Clean Energy Employment Report. Asians, Hispanics and Latinos are represented in the clean energy sector just as well if not better than their proportion in the state’s total workforce, the report shows, but a September 2021 report from E2, a national environmental advocacy group, noted that the job gains for Hispanic or Latino people “have been largely in lower-wage energy occupations such as construction labor.”

Women make up only 22.6% of the state’s clean energy sector, despite making up roughly half of the state’s population. 

Joylette Portlock works as the executive director for the nonprofit group Sustainable Pittsburgh and serves on the advisory board of  The Black Environmental Collective. She explains that the problem is the result of several different systemic issues, including lack of access to transportation and child care for individuals seeking training. 

“It’s not just any one piece of the solution that’s going to solve the whole problem,” Portlock said. 

Portlock said she believes businesses should have initiatives to promote diversity within their companies, including engagement with local organizations that have a strong relationship with the community. Robust and accessible training programs are a necessity, she said. 

“We want to have a society where all people can engage to their fullest and have equal access to opportunity to thrive,” Portlock said. “And when you’re talking about an industry that has been growing… these are industries that are poised to expand. And so if we aren’t expanding that opportunity for everyone, then we’re not able to fully benefit as a region.”

Renewable energy jobs in Pennsylvania declined about 7.4% from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2021 Pennsylvania Clean Energy Industry Report. Experts believe the industry will soon expand across the country because of initiatives favored by President Joe Biden. Across the world, the use of renewable electricity is projected to increase from 2020 to 2026 by more than 60%, according to IEA, a global source of sustainability data and analysis. 

Fred Underwood works two, 24-hour days a week as a full-time City of Pittsburgh firefighter. During some of his downtime, he operates a solar panel installation business, called Underwood Solar Future. About a decade ago, it sounded to Underwood like solar would become a lucrative business venture in Pennsylvania. 

Fred Underwood speaks with a client, John Doyle, after checking on a solar system installed at his home in Apollo. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

“When Ed Rendell said he was going to green all the buildings using solar panels, I started looking into solar panels,” Underwood said. 

He started the business in 2009 after taking solar energy classes in Georgia, Massachusetts and Colorado. He also utilized his experience with electrical work in his 26 years in the military. 

PublicSource asked a few Pittsburgh-area renewable energy experts if they know of any local minority-owned green energy businesses, and each of them named just one: Underwood Solar Future. 

But it’s far from a full-time business.

He prioritizes his firefighter job of more than two decades because of its pay and benefits, which he says helped his four children attend private school and at least four years of college education. Some funding from a local veterans group helped sustain his solar business in the past. 

“Without the funding, it’s been sporadic,” Underwood said. “I did a system last year and two systems the year before.” 

There are aspects of running a minority-owned business in general that have given him problems. He said the process for maintaining certification as a minority-owned business proves incredibly tiresome because of the copious amounts of paperwork it requires. He said he isn’t aware of any particular barriers in the clean energy industry that affected him as a Black man, but he notes he’s only done solar work for two minority clients.

“Have I lost contracts and what have you because of my color? Maybe I did,” Underwood said. “I’m not sure.” 

Increasing diversity and training

Khari Mosley, political director of the activist organization 1Hood Media, spent seven years as the regional programs manager of the BlueGreen Alliance. He has a lot of hope for the region’s green energy sector but notes that, for a variety of reasons, marginalized people often get left behind in the industry. 

“Sometimes folks may not be in a position to be able to make that kind of time investment into a long-term … certification program,” Mosley said. “Those kinds of certifications that are helpful when you’re particularly in an energy-efficiency space or a solar space.”

There are some local organizations that have been trying to make green energy training programs more accessible. He points to the Breaking the Chains of Poverty program from the Pittsburgh A. Philip Randolph Institute in partnership with the United Steelworkers, which offers training programs with a focus on sustainability. 

The Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] also offers renewable energy training with an emphasis on including a diverse population. CCAC hopes to launch a program in partnership with New Sun Rising in May that would provide 10 to 12 people with 40 hours of training across two weeks, free to participants. Collaborating with New Sun Rising appealed to CCAC largely because of its emphasis on serving a diverse population, according to Debra Roach, vice president of workforce development at CCAC. 

“One of the strategic initiatives of CCAC is to provide opportunities for a variety of populations that we serve, and that includes diverse populations,” Roach said. 

George Ackerman heads the training program from New Sun Rising. He said half of the chosen participants will come from the Triboro Ecodistrict, which encompasses Millvale, Etna and Sharpsburg, and the other half will be residents of the neighborhoods served by the South Hilltop Men’s Group

“We wanted to focus on, with the South Hilltop Men’s Group, getting people who have traditionally been disadvantaged these certifications and getting them good jobs,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman also said New Sun Rising has funds available to help participants who may need financial assistance with transportation or missing work. 

CCAC will provide 20 hours of preparation for a TABE Test, a widely used assessment of adults that involves reading, writing and math and is required to be eligible for the program. 

“We want to be able to provide the opportunity to a diverse population, and some of the population that we serve may not be eligible for the program because they can’t pass the basic education test,” Roach said. 

Mosley is a part of Mayor Ed Gainey’s transition team, focusing on infrastructure. He hopes to help the Gainey administration use the $18 billion allocated by the federal infrastructure bill to create jobs and protect the environment in a way that includes everyone. 

“With the new [city] administration, with a federal administration focused on infrastructure, I think that could create a great opportunity for Pittsburgh to really build on the work that’s been done over the last decade to 15 years, to really grow the region’s green economy,” Mosley said. “I think this is really, it’s probably a once-in-a-generation opportunity.” 

Just as the region may start to see the fruits of an expansion into renewable energy, Underwood may soon be expanding Underwood Solar Future. 

“I’m close to retirement for the City of Pittsburgh,” Underwood said. “So probably be going full time into solar.”

Matt Petras is an independent writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at matt456p@gmail.com or on Twitter @mattApetras.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

Do you feel more informed?

Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.