The solar industry employed over 230,000 workers during 2020, but projections indicate that a total of 900,000 solar workers will be needed to meet President Biden’s goal to decarbonize the grid by 2035. To make this possible, it will be necessary to train and recruit many more workers, including population groups with a limited presence in the industry.

Current statistics reveal that there is a big gap to cover. According to the IREC-led National Solar Jobs Census, women in the solar industry represent only 30% of the workforce. The disproportionate gender gap and the scarce presence of LGBTTQI+ people in the solar industry can be found in every U.S. jurisdiction, and Puerto Rico is not an exception.

Here in Puerto Rico, just as in the rest of the United States, the solar industry promises to be a major job creator in the coming years. Solar energy is poised to grow rapidly as the island rebuilds from the 2017 hurricanes. In turn, this clean energy expansion will offer the welcome prospect of new career opportunities for people from a wide variety of skill and education levels.

At the same time, it will be vital to ensure the clean energy jobs boom does not leave anyone behind. The Energy Public Policy Program (PEPP) registry of certified solar system installers, updated in March 2020, indicates that this U.S. territory has 1,385 installers. Only 1 percent of the accredited installers are women, or 13 people in total; eight are engineers, four are expert electricians, and one is unclassified. IREC’s Puerto Rico solar industry workforce market study found that women are well represented in administration and sales, and to some degree in PV system design; but not enough in the more technical PV fields, such as electricity and engineering.

There are a number of reasons for this disparity, but our study found the lack of female-only learning settings and STEM education reduces interest among women. Other possible causes we identified were perception of gender roles, lack of women in solar industry marketing, and lack of awareness of opportunities. Meanwhile, there are no official statistics on the or presence lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer, or intersexual people (LGBTTQI+) in the solar industry, but anecdotal data from solar industry members in Puerto Rico confirm it is meager. This reinforces the need for an inclusive workplace environment that values the full spectrum of identities.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico has set ambitious goals to achieve 40% renewable energy use by 2025, and 100% by 2050. To achieve this, Puerto Rico will require a dramatic increase in its solar workforce, from about 2,000 workers today to 6,819 by 2025, 10,320 by 2040, and 16,275 by 2050. For this reason alone, expanding training and recruitment to these overlooked groups should be an urgent priority.      

Local Initiatives for Inclusion

This call for inclusion has not been overlooked by various local and international organizations who are now helping open the door to diversity. The aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria led to increased interest in clean energy solutions, prompting various entities to create workshops and courses on solar energy and equipment installation. Professional organizations dedicated to solar workforce training traveled to Puerto Rico to train local women to develop their energy resilience projects.      

SEI training local women. Source: Bosque Modelo de Puerto Rico

With support from Bosque Modelo de Puerto Rico, Solar Energy International (SEI) trained 25 women from rural communities to design and install photovoltaic systems. In July 2019, 13 women from nine municipalities graduated from the first cohort. In addition, a group of women participated in six-hour weekly training sessions using SEI’s Solar Electric Design and Installation (Grid-Direct) and PV System Fundamentals (Battery-Based) Spanish curriculum. The trainees also participated in six supervised practice community installations in residential and community settings. In addition, several SEI training participants continued their training with apprenticeships at solar companies and within the Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña’s Solar Program.

Bosque Modelo supported another remarkable initiative known as Solar Mamas. Staff for Barefoot College, an institution based in India, traveled to the community of Maricao and taught courses to 24 women during the summer of 2019. The course included technical topics on the design, installation, and maintenance of solar systems, from solar lamps to photovoltaic panels. Other topics included in the course were leadership, entrepreneurship, values, teamwork, gender, and climate change.

Río Piedras: A Model for Workforce Development

A recently completed solar installation at the Plaza del Mercado de Río Piedras in San Juan was an opportunity to put diversity and inclusion principles into action. On the rooftop of Puerto Rico’s most important market, IREC helped coordinate a 250 kW solar installation with support from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, Hispanic Federation, Clinton Foundation, and other partners. We worked with the installer, NEO Era Energy Solutions, to recruit women and members of the LGBTTQI+ community who had recently completed solar training programs.

Kai Rivera Cruz was working as a baker before he joined a training program organized by Solar Libre, where he had the opportunity to work on more than 50 projects in areas where reliable energy was urgently needed. This experience led him to join the team at Río Piedras. As a transgender man, Kai stresses how important it is to give people from all backgrounds an opportunity to succeed. “All of us have the capacity and the intelligence,” he says. The Río Piedras installation gave him the chance to work on a large and complex project, which has encouraged him to keep pursuing a solar career. “It reinforced my aspiration to continue in the industry.”

Ada Ramona Miranda came to the Río Piedras project after completing more than 300 hours of training through a program supported by Barefoot College and Bosque Modelo. When I talked to Ada, she pointed out that while women may be underrepresented on solar installation teams, they are equally capable of working on a rooftop and completing the same physical tasks that men can do. “At every moment, I thank all the women who’ve opened doors for us, because we aren’t the first ones here,” she says.

Women as Puerto Rico’s Next Solar Industry Leaders

Working women in Puerto Rico’s solar industry. Photo by Eva Campbell

As one sign of progress, Puerto Rico’s key solar industry professional organizations are now led by women. In August 2020, the College of Electrical Experts selected Frances Berrios as its president. With over 20 years of experience in the field, Berrios leads an organization that includes 15,000 electricians. Likewise, the members of the Association of Consultants and Renewable Energy Contractors (ACONER) selected Eng. Lourdes M. Marcano as its leader at the end of 2020.

Marcano and Berrios have overcome barriers to position themselves in leadership roles within a male-dominated industry, but they recognize that there is work to be done to achieve equity, diversity, and inclusion. In order to support women and members of the LGBTTQI+ community, it is not enough for the industry to open its doors. It is also necessary to offer opportunities for development and advancement in their solar careers.

To that point, Marcano indicates that she would like to see more women venture to set up their own companies. As Marcano mentioned, this could be accomplished by creating “educational programs, in a way that can be free or at low cost, to allow anyone to be educated technically, combined with programs that maintain the continuity of a job in this industry in the long term. One thing that would help greatly is giving incentives to companies with a recruitment program for inclusion.”

Women Opening Paths for Women

Waiting for affirmative action from the government or the solar industry itself is not the only option. In Puerto Rico, a group of women are taking the initiative to form a workers group to make the most of their skills and talents and create a collective of mutual support.

Eva Campbell, a woman with experience in the solar industry, indicates that promoting the inclusion of women requires initiatives that develop women’s companies and form corporations to install solar systems. The goal of the group will be to encourage work opportunities for women graduates of the Bosque Modelo’s Renewable Energy Training Program for Women and encourage women’s participation in the renewable industry.           

How Can Governments and the Solar Industry Advance Diversity and Inclusion?

The efforts to achieve a diverse and inclusive workforce in the solar energy industry for women and members of the LGBTTQI+ community must be focused on breaking down barriers to entry, retention, and advancement among these demographic groups. According to Campbell, it is necessary to “overcome the prejudice that women cannot do the same work as men.”

Source: Diversity Best Practices Guide for the Solar Industry, The Solar Foundation and SEIA, 2019

Helpful resources include the Diversity Best Practices Guide for the Solar Industry, published by The Solar Foundation (now part of IREC) and the Solar Energy Industries Association.  Also, the group Renewables Forward recently published an actionable playbook to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion.

On the other hand, local governments can create programs to support women and members of the LGBTTQI+ community, such as scholarships, apprenticeships, and business support created and directed by members of these demographic groups. In the case of women, several studies indicate that the key to their inclusion in any STEM field is exposure and education in these disciplines during the school years. As Marcano also noted, breaking the barrier of inequality should begin at the childhood stage.

In the Puerto Rican solar industry, much remains to be done to achieve equity and inclusion for women and members of the LGBTTQI+ community. At IREC, we are committed to addressing this demographic vacuum by developing education and awareness initiatives to help achieve our ultimate goal: a 100% clean energy future—in Puerto Rico and nationwide—that is resilient, reliable, and equitable.