Austin natives, Black clean energy entrepreneurs say industry needs people of color

"Most of the time, when people see guys doing this kind of work, it's not us," says Darnell Johnson

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By Michael Romain

Editor

According to a recent report released by the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., the average hourly wage for occupations in clean energy and environmental sustainability, or the green economy — from solar panel installers to environmental engineers — was nearly $26 an hour and most of those jobs required just a high school diploma or less. 

But Blacks, who comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population, are significantly under-represented in the burgeoning industry, which could swell if Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden is elected in November and makes good on his campaign's $2 trillion climate plan, which could mean many more jobs in the clean energy sector. 

For instance, Blacks currently only comprise 3 percent of the country's electrical power-line installers and repairers, 6 percent of the country's insulation workers and 5 percent of the country's environmental scientists and geoscientists. 

Austin natives Darnell Johnson, Stacy Johnson and Byron Payne are among the rare Black men working in the clean energy sector. They head up two companion firms. 

Darnell owns Urban Efficiency Group, which provides free environmental sustainability consulting services to local governments, particularly in underserved communities of color. Stacy and Byron are president and field director, and field supervisor, respectively, of Urban Efficiency LLC, a firm that provides a range of urban efficiency services, such as home weatherization and energy conservation consultation. 

"Stacy is the president and Byron is an owner of Urban Efficiency — they are premier demonstrators of what it means to be a minority-owned business in a space that doesn't necessarily show a lot of us in the space," said Darnell during an interview on Oct. 8 at a worksite in suburban Broadview.  

Darnell, who wore a sharp navy blue suit, worked to secure a memorandum of understanding with the predominantly Black suburb to provide environmental sustainability consulting services in a variety of areas. Already, his firm has helped the village implement a program designed to increase the number of homeowners who weatherize their homes. 

While Darnell spoke, Stacy and Byron were in black work outfits installing a Retrotec Blower at the entrance to Broadview's village hall. The door  is typically used to test homes for air leakages, but Urban Efficiency has retrofitted it to serve a different need. 

"This depressurizes the home," Stacy said of the door. "Typically, we use it to test for air leakages — every crack and open spot that leads to the outside. This pulls air through those cracks so we can go around the home and find where the leaks are at and seal those leaks up, so that the home can be more energy efficient.  

But instead of tracking leaks, the Retrotec Blower door will be used to increase ventilation and lower people's risk of contracting COVID-19 while inside of Broadview's polling facilities on Nov. 3. 

The installation was part of Urban Efficiency LLC's and Urban Efficiency Group's Healthy Voting Initiative, which is designed to help keep voters and election workers in predominately African American communities safe while at the polls. In addition to Broadview, the men have also worked with some south suburbs, they said. 

"Most of the time, when people see guys doing this kind of work, it's not us," Darnell said. "And so Stacy and Byron have been very dedicated about letting people know that this is a career path."  

Darnell said that one of the reasons there are so few Blacks working in the clean energy sector is due to what he said is a chronic lack of the three A's: awareness, accessibility and affordability. 

In addition to not seeing many people like them working in the field, many Blacks may also be locked out clean energy employment due to the barriers to training opportunities and the steep cost of certifications. 

"If the training is so far away from them and it's not localized, they won't necessarily have the means to getting to where the training is available," Darnell said. 

Stacy and Byron Payne said that this is one of the reasons why they're often willing to setup pop-up training sites to localize access. 

Darnell said that the other barrier, affordability, is due to the fact that a certification, which is critical to career advancement, can cost between $1,800 and $2,500. 

"You can know about this and have access to the opportunities, but if you can't afford to pay for certifications, then it doesn't matter," Darnell said.  

He said that certifications for entry level jobs like air leakage controller and installer is between $1,800 and $2,000. It costs about $2,200 and $2,500 to get certified as a building analyst, a step above leakage controller and installer. 

"To get to where Stacy and Bryon are, and those certifications aren't all that they have, you'd have spend in excess of between $12,000 and $15,000 to get the certifications that each of them has," Darnell said. "And once you move from your mid-level to advanced certifications, there are a certain amount of hours you have to demonstrate in the field before you can even sit to take those certifications." 

Urban Efficiency LLC is a certified test center and is qualified to "put folks on a certain trajectory," Darnell said.  

In order to address those barriers to entry for minorities, Urban Efficiency LLC created an EcoWorks program designed to "recruit, train and employ a diverse workforce in the energy efficiency industry," according to the firm's website. 

"You can't talk about a green economy and wanting to get more people into it until you start talking about equity," Darnell said.  

For more information on Urban Efficiency LLC and Urban Efficiency Group, visit urbanefficiencygroup.com

Contact:
Email: michael@austinweeklynews.com Twitter: AustinWeeklyChi

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