Investments In Renewables Spur Business Growth and Green Jobs

Investments In Renewables Spur Business Growth and Green Jobs

Editor's Note: For more on the government perspective, from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, see “Solar Incentives in S.F. Show How Smart Green Investments Pay Off.”

In reporting on the growth of Green Jobs training programs, I only scratched the surface of why it is important for businesses to work with local and regional governments in implementing public-private partnerships.

On July 7, I spoke with Danny Kennedy, Chief Executive Officer of Sungevity about his role in working with local governments and non-profits in training a workforce for the clean energy industry. Executive Director Joel Makower profiled Sungevity in his book, "Strategies for the Green Economy," noting that the company is one entrepreneur in the category of "game changers."

Sarah Terry-Cobo: What does your business do?

Danny Kennedy: Sungevity is a web-based solar installation company. We have about 26 employees split between our Oakland shop and office in Berkeley… Under California’s solar initiative, it makes it easy for customers to invest in solar, and we serve customers in Oakland and support those cities who are willing to support the business community. We do the design estimate remotely in 24 hours with our online calculator.

STC: What has been the extent of your role as a business in Oakland’s Green Jobs Corps Program and the Green Employer Council?

DK: It’s been awhile since we formed the council, but it was established to find the workforce needs to get the Green Job Corps programs started. We helped shaped the curricula, to help try to find a path for people to enter workforce training and then find jobs. The program has done that well, with the recent Green Jobs graduation.

The extent of our role was positive part of being a citizen of Oakland; to join our operations and our customers in Oakland is integral to figuring out how to better grow this industry. Reflecting on the question, it’s an historic time with Obama in the White House -- in which the discussion among policy makers and businesses, is of the economic opportunity to tackle climate change. It’s exciting to be a part of the green economy,  and to see these programs come to fruition.

Our business is growing despite the recession. Ours is a downstream focus on residential solar panel installation. We’ve done okay, growing this year from last year, and employed some people. Because of the slower growth curve of solar adoption we have been able to take some trainees from San Francisco last year.

The solar industry broadly, is going to probably grow a little bit from 2008. It looks like a flat year at least, which is better than most industries, that is good even though it is not a fast growth curve. But it will probably pick up with stimulus funding, from both the federal and state of California governments.

STC: What is your role as a business when working with non-profits or public-private partnerships?

DK: As a business, it proves to be good to partner with a social movement like the Ella Baker’s Green Jobs campaign. On other side of equation, people realize there is a problem and we provide those solutions and there are actual jobs and wealth creation opportunities.

With governments, it’s good to see entrepreneurs who offer an option for those who aren’t getting employed in traditional jobs. Governments want to nurture mutually reinforcing relationships with long-term trajectories. We look to them for security of programs and a workforce to supply our business. And for citizens that want to go solar, whether they are the people of Oakland or of California or of the U.S. need to know making an investment in solar is going to be supported.

STC: Why are clean energy policies important for your business?

DK: Well, for procurement purposes. When government acts perversely and subsidizes fossil fuels, these entrenched companies have an unfair advantage. We need to know subsidies will stick around and be consistent.

The first A-priori assumption about policy is that if we are going to grow jobs, government action is critical. Beyond the political rhetoric, if the market mechanisms are supplied on an ‘on again off again’ basis, it is not the signal businesses need. We need consistent support of investment and growth in order to be competitive with vested interests in the fossil fuel industry.

I went into public works committee hearing regarding climate action, and by adopting standards with benchmarks set by the Climate Action Council, the City of Oakland is in a position to be leader in a solutions setting…I think we know there are four to five times as many jobs supported by working to meet a carbon reduction goal; Oakland is more likely to employ more citizens than other cities that are dragging their feet on climate protection and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.



STC: Why is the state’s million solar rooftops important to your business?

DK: The trade off in business, it will grow an industry. In order to have 1 million homes in California with solar panels by 2017, our industry must grow by tenfold. For example, there are about 20-30 systems installed a day in the state, but to reach the 2017 goal, it needs to be 200 per day.

The industry won’t do that on its own; it needs government behind it and make every stage of business easier. All of the bureaucracy has to be streamlined -- but this is a symbiotic relationship. Our dependence on government is clear: we are competing with subsidized fossil fuel businesses and we have to cultivate that mentality from a public policy point of view.

From employment to social, there are many features and benefits… it not just manufacturing and construction jobs, it’s kids in Oakland getting meaningful employment tracks that pay fair wages and that will sustain them for years. We need to work with government and understand the advantages of coexisting with them.

For example, because of San Francisco’s solar rebate program, there is a great mutually reinforcing relationship: to get young people work that has a meaningful wage, our customers benefited from the rebates, an additional $1,000….We had 86 sales in San Francisco last year, and there are a couple crew members that have a future in solar and the skills to make a life out of it.

STC: How much room for growth exists for employees in the solar installation industry?

DK: From very basic construction skills and knowing a fine craft, which solar installation still is, many of our employees are now familiar enough with project-based construction and management.

We had someone move out to another company and take a lead role in a crew in Grass Valley. I’m happy for them; they can apply those skills in an area that doesn’t have the rich training base that the Bay Area does. And they can gain new experience in managing a crew.

The biggest challenge in the clean energy industry and solar in particular is the growth and how explosive it’s going to be. Millions of solar panels will make a dent in Carbon Dioxide pollution, and that is just California. Then there is service and maintenance aspect of solar panels.

It is a world of “rampant opportunities,” and I think we will see literally unchecked growth. We don’t know what we’re up for [in the future], that is why it is good for employees to get basic skills, as a core accomplishment, and then they can grow on that. It is really quite exciting to be a part of it.