A recent report found that Michigan leads the Midwest in clean energy jobs, but top state energy officials say the state and industry could foster a more diverse workforce.
Speaking at a Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council conference in Lansing on April 23, a Michigan Public Service Commission member and the director of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) agreed the clean energy sector lacks diversity.
“The lieutenant governor says it best: State government has to look like the state of Michigan. We have to do a better job,” said EGLE Director Liesl Eichler Clark. “We need to get voices to the table. All of us can make a difference about being intentional about the decisions we’re making.”
Eichler Clark, a former MEIBC president, oversees a department of 1,200 employees. She said she is “passionate” about issues of inclusion, and that diversity also means bridging the divide between urban and rural communities.
Dan Scripps, also a former MEIBC president who was appointed to the Michigan Public Service Commission by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in April, agreed.
“I think we can do more. As the economy and energy mix transforms, who is that supposed to benefit?” Scripps said. He added that the historical energy mix of fossil fuels has disproportionately burdened low-income and communities of color with pollution.
“It needs to serve as a wake-up call to all of us,” Scripps said. “As the energy mix is transformed, folks who have been left out of the energy discussion in the past (should be included). If you do that right … you now have a truly diverse constituency for increased action for everyone in the state. No one is left behind.”
Carla Walker-Miller, president and CEO of Detroit-based Walker-Miller Energy Services LLC, introduced Eichler Clark and Scripps after the audience was asked to submit one word that describes the state of the advanced energy industry. In 2018, the Detroit Free Press wrote Walker-Miller has “become something of an icon of black female entrepreneurship in Detroit.”
“My hope is one word is added: ‘Inclusive,’” Walker-Miller said. “With the job growth and all of the good things it will bring to the state, one thing that will really spur growth and inclusion is equity, and having more diverse communities and diverse voices in the room.”
Inclusion and diversity was a running theme during the day-long conference.
Eichler Clark told MiBiz that the energy efficiency sector in particular is a “great opportunity” to keep jobs in communities instead of shifting in and out of the state. For example, she cited the differences in needs for the ongoing weatherization of homes compared to building renewable energy projects.
A 2017 report by the Solar Foundation tracked several demographics in the solar industry, including gender and race. The first-of-its-kind U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study found that despite industry growth, women made up 28 percent of the solar workforce. Seventeen percent of solar workers are Hispanic or Latino, 7 percent are African American and 9 percent are Asian; Native Americans accounted for less than 1 percent of the solar workforce. Veterans, meanwhile, made up 9 percent of the workforce. (An updated diversity study is expected in early May.)
“Solar and other clean energy industries play an important role in the promotion of inclusiveness across the U.S. economy,” according to the study.
The diversity study includes a set of recommendations for solar companies, including being “open and authentic in their treatment of diversity,” training company managers and building entrepreneurial programs in disadvantaged communities.
In 2016, Illinois passed comprehensive energy reforms under the Future Energy Jobs Act. Scripps noted particular requirements in the bill such as a Solar for All program, which gives incentives for solar projects in environmental justice communities.
“One thing (Illinois) did that’s remarkable — that we should aim to replicate in our energy decisions — is they made a conscious effort that the transition benefit everybody,” Scripps said.
Clean energy job growth
State officials’ comments come as Michigan emerges as a regional clean energy job leader. The Clean Energy Jobs Midwest report released April 11 shows Michigan with the highest number of clean energy jobs (126,081) among 12 Midwest states, followed by Illinois, Ohio and Indiana.
The report was commissioned by Clean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs and was based on recent employment data from the federal government.
While most of the top five states aren’t known for their progressive climate change policies, traditional sectors around automobiles and manufacturing have helped bolster the clean energy sector. Additionally, Michigan clean energy employers anticipate 9 percent job growth, which is higher than anticipated growth in any other Midwest state, according to the report.
Between 2017 and 2018, Michigan’s clean energy jobs grew 4 percent, more than twice as fast as the state’s overall job growth rate. Roughly two-thirds of Michigan’s clean energy jobs are in the energy efficiency sector, such as high-efficiency heating and cooling and advanced materials.
Advanced transportation jobs make up about one-fifth of the clean energy sector, which increased 16 percent since 2017 to 25,304 jobs. Nearly all of those jobs are in plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles, according to the report.
Renewable energy generation accounts for about one-tenth of clean energy jobs in the state, followed by advanced grid development (including energy storage) and clean fuels.
The Detroit metro area has roughly five times the number of clean energy jobs (55,447) as the Grand Rapids metro area (10,702).
While Michigan has relatively weak clean energy laws — governors in Minnesota and Illinois, for example, are pushing for 100-percent clean energy portfolios in the coming decades — the Whitmer administration has made climate change a priority. Scripps said Illinois’ focus on including disadvantaged communities can be a model here.
“If you want to do something with the challenge we face — an adequate and full response to global climate change — that’s the inclusive approach you need to take in how the energy system transforms,” Scripps said.