Generating Solar Jobs For City Residents
Have a criminal record and no high school diploma? No problem. The Baltimore Center for Green Careers trains some of the city’s most disenfranchised residents to thrive in 21st century renewable energy jobs. Kim Brown reports
KIM BROWN: Hello, and welcome to the Real Baltimore, a production of the Real News Network. I’m your host Kim Brown. There is no question whether energy and the environment are inextricably linked. After all, the term ‘fossil fuel’ is literally defined as a natural fuel such as coal or gas, formed in the geological past from the remains of living organisms. But, in the midst of comprehensive data that appears to signal that the planet is warming and the poles are melting at a record pace hastened by humans burning huge amounts of greenhouse gases, how will we manage energy production without sacrificing the health and habitat and job opportunities?
That is a discussion that needs to have priority here in the 21st century. In a moment, we will be joined with our esteemed panel to talk about how energy, the environment, and jobs all work together or don’t here in the state of Maryland. But first, a moratorium that was set to expire in October on fracking, which is the practice of using pressurized liquids to break apart shale rock to extract natural gas, that moratorium is a moot point. People of all political stripes were stunned this past April when republican governor Larry Hogan signed a permanent fracking ban in Maryland. Plot twist, it comes on the heels of Maryland adding more than 1,000 solar jobs in 2016. Here is the report.
Gov. Larry Hogan: Because of Maryland’s unique position in the country and our wealth of natural resources, our administration has concluded that the possible environmental risks of fracking simply outweigh any potential benefits. This legislation, I believe, is an important initiative to safeguard our environment.
KIM BROWN: With the energy extraction process of hydraulic fracturing of shale rock, also known as fracking, it was defeated this spring by the Maryland state legislature and with the stroke of Governor Hogan’s pen, environmental activists declared victory, but proponents of the oil and gas industry bemoan the fracking ban as a loss of potential jobs. But, not so fast. According to the Department of Energy’s 2017 Energy and Jobs Report, over half of the energy creating jobs in Maryland came in the renewable energy sector, that of solar and wind.
These are considered to be, “good jobs that require specialized skills and training and pays above minimum wage.” Over in East Baltimore, there is a center whose mission it is to find and train city residents to fill jobs in this fast growing sector. Eli Allen is the Executive Director of the Baltimore Center for Green Careers.
ELI ALLEN: Civic Work’s Baltimore Center for Green Careers has four training tracks that participants can choose to enroll in. We have our solar installation training track, our [inaudible 00:02:59] energy and efficiency track, which is lowering the energy usage of homes across Baltimore, our [inaudible 00:03:06] asbestos remediation training track, and the fourth is our storm water management training track. Most of our job trainings participants complete two months of paid on-the-job training. This is our social enterprise operation space. We keep our inventory, cellulose insulation, our trucks for folks to get real work experience working with our customers on projects and our contracts. It gives them an ability to hone their technical skills and to work with customers.
As a program, we’re able to fully recommend them as graduates for permanent employment based on our experience with them throughout the on-the-job training period. Our hands-on lab space, we have a mock-up of a roof here where participants hone their skills before going on on-the-job training. Everything from roofing skills, creating roof penetrations, building up racking equipment for the solar system, installing the panels, running the conduit, the electrical wiring. Solar is sort of a multi-trade sector requiring roofing, mechanical, and electrical work. Everybody spends about two weeks here honing those skills before beginning on-the-job training.
Speaker 4: The things I learn, it won’t have me at a dead end somewhere because there’s so many different places to go with this solar job. You can be in sales, maintenance, installation, electrical. There’s so many different avenues to go so you can’t get stuck in one place. If you run into one wall, you can [inaudible 00:04:44] another one, [inaudible 00:04:45] that wall, got another opportunity. It’s pretty good.
KIM BROWN: We caught up with two grads from the Baltimore Center for Green Careers, Lionel and Malik. They were part of a crew installing a solar panel system in the Butcher’s Hill neighborhood near downtown Baltimore.
LIONEL: Yes, I graduated from Baltimore City Green Careers four months ago. It was a pretty good thing to get into as far as solar. It’s the big thing coming up now, it’s shooting off. I was in Baltimore City Green Careers for two months. Right after I was finished, they hired me on 21st Century.
MALIK: There’s definitely been a boom. Our phones are ringing off the hook. We’ve found that having the green careers giving them the training really helps them be comfortable once they’re out in the field working for us. I’ve found and we have found that the students coming from the Baltimore Green Careers are motivated, their positive, forward thinking. Lionel and Malik have really excelled because they were set up for success since the beginning. The program sets them up for success, we work together with them, and we help them grow a career for themselves.
KIM BROWN: A career, which could lead to these installers becoming their own bosses in just a few short years.
LIONEL: In about five or 10 years, I could see hopefully owning one of my own solar company and putting up solar commercial or residential, whatever it takes me. Definitely, I could see myself owning my own solar company at the moment. Baltimore Center for Green Careers is a great opportunity. It’s felony-friendly, it’s a lot of people who really don’t have a chance or that’s been really the low bottom, they give them a great opportunity and they can make a lot of money and really change their path on their life. No matter what they were doing before, they can definitely turn over a new leaf.
KIM BROWN: Reporting in Baltimore for the Real News, I’m Kim Brown.
Time to welcome our panel today. Joining us is Colby Ferguson. Colby is the Director of Government Relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau and a long-time supporter of agricultural issues. We’re also joined with Eli Allen. He directs the Civic Works Baltimore Center for Green Careers, overseeing its three-part model of classroom and hands-on training, on-the-job learning, and socially responsible business development. He leads BCGC’s sector-based career training tracks, as well as the social enterprise that users demand for its services to create on-the-job training opportunities for students.
Seth Whitehead is also joining us today via Skype. He is the team lead for Energy In Depth, which is a research, education, and outreach program sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. He joins us today from Illinois, where he and members of his family have worked in the oil and gas industry for four generations. We’re also joined today with Mitch Jones. Mitch is the Senior Policy Advocate for Food and Water Watch. Mitch was an integral part of the successful Don’t Frack Maryland program.
Mitch, I actually wanted to start with you because really, it reverberated across the country when Governor Hogan signed this fracking ban, one of only, I believe, a handful of states that have gone this far to outright ban this method of energy extraction. Talk to us about the campaign. Why do you think it was successful?
MITCH JONES: First of all, thanks Kim for having this program. You mentioned earlier that everybody across the political spectrum was stunned when Larry Hogan announced his support for a fracking ban. I don’t think that that’s an understatement at all. I remember that afternoon very well. It was Saint Patrick’s Day and I kept telling people who were calling me to tell me he had said this, that they had the wrong holiday because it wasn’t April Fools yet.
But, I think that the reason why we had a successful campaign here in Maryland is because we put together a broad-based coalition, the Don’t Frack Maryland campaign, from small business folks in western Maryland who are a part of the tourism industry out there, health professionals across the state, and of course, environmental organizations, as well. We spent many years educating folks about the hazards of fracking and the fact that bringing fracking to Maryland was not, as the governor concluded, worth the risk to our homegrown environment and economy. In the end, I think that the governor saw that.
He’s an interesting fellow. He likes to perceive himself as a bit of a bipartisan sort of a guy and he sometimes takes a pro-environment view. I think that he made a calculation, having looked at the fact that just about every poll in Maryland showed that the majority of Marylanders, and especially those who knew about fracking, supported a ban on fracking, including amongst a lot of Larry Hogan supporters. I believe what he concluded was that this was an issue where he was going to be able to take a pro-environment position, it wasn’t going to hurt him very much with his base, and was in fact, going to be able to burnish his perception of himself as a bipartisan governor.
KIM BROWN: It was politically savvy because he’s up for election next year in a blue state, a Republican governor. He was iffy on Donald Trump, so he sort of went the opposite direction of what President Trump is proposing in terms of return to coal, etc. For Governor Hogan to take this enormous step was certainly not in line with the Republican Party as a base.
MITCH JONES: He has a very mixed record. Here though, I think that he read the tea leaves. He knew where this was headed and he is politically savvy. He got out in front of an issue where he believed he could make some real political hay for himself.
KIM BROWN: Colby, you represent the Maryland Farm Bureau, which represents the issues of Maryland land and farm owners in western Maryland. What was their reaction, from those that you spoke with in the western part of the state, the primary part of the state that would have been impacted by fracking, and those that are within your organization? What was your initial response when you learned that Governor Hogan had taken this step?
COLBY FERGUSON: It’s very disheartening for a lot of the land owners in western Maryland, particularly the ones that have fought this fight for over ten years. It’s not like there’s no shale gas extraction in western Maryland, it’s there. They’ve been doing it since 1955. This was just another form of an aggressive way of getting the gas out of the ground. It’s not a perfect science. It’s something that was probably a little before it’s time and was really put out there and used commercially in lots of different states, maybe to a point where obviously, it wasn’t done correctly. You had spills and things like that, you had pollution of water.
The farmers and landowners out in western Maryland and across the state, they had mixed emotions on whether this was a valuable thing. It was very important … they wanted to ability to retain the mineral rights and the value of their land, and the ability to take something that is constitutionally theirs through the united States … to have that value, but at the same time, environmentally be sustainable and make sure that they’re not polluting. Basically, their livelihood is made off their land and the last thing they want to do is take a chance of messing that up.
KIM BROWN: Seth, I know that you’re based in Illinois, but you write extensively on Energy In Depth. In your opinion, from the outside looking in, what do Marylanders have to lose with this ban imposed on fracking now?
SETH WHITEHEAD: I think that just looking at Maryland and the fact that Maryland’s natural gas consumption has increased 18 percent since 2007 and that Maryland will continue to use more natural gas in the coming years, that basically, this decision is an extreme decision that takes off the table using locally produced natural gas, which has lowered emissions and created enormous economic opportunities in other areas where shale development has been conducted. That would be the number one aspect about this decision that was more of an extreme path. I’ll use the example of Illinois, where there was a hotly contested debate, as well.
One side said, “We’ve got to ban this,” and the other side said, “Wait a minute, this can be done safely and we have property that we would like to develop.” I think that’s the biggest shame of the whole situation is that it was an extreme path. Unlike Illinois, when shale development does take place here in the near future, those landowners will have the ability to produce their minerals and the citizens will have the ability to locally produce energy right here in Illinois.
KIM BROWN: Mitch, I know that Food and Water Watch spoke extensively with residents in western Maryland who would have been directly impacted by the fracking of the [inaudible 00:14:40] shale. There was the anticipation that this could be a bit of a financial boom for landowners, as Colby said. But, the other concerns had to do with very basic elements like making sure that the drinking water would remain untainted and making sure that Deep Creek Lake would still be accessible for tourists. What did you hear from folks in western Maryland, especially how this played politically because that’s Trump country out there. That’s ‘drill baby, drill’ country, except maybe it wasn’t ‘drill baby, drill’ country.
MITCH JONES: I think Governor Hogan actually was the Grand Marshall for a parade out in Garrett County last fall and he was met all along the parade route by dozens of western Marylanders holding up ‘Don’t Frack Maryland’ signs. I don’t know if it’s as ‘drill baby, drill’ as much as it may have been a few years ago. I do think that I heard the same concerns that you heard. There was a deep concern about potential contamination, primarily of the water resources out there.
Deep Creek Lake is a major driver of the economy in that region, bringing tourists in for weekends or longer to go for hikes, kayak, stay in bed and breakfast, to visit local restaurants, to shop in the local shops. It really does drive a lot of the economy out there and folks were concerned that even one spill, one accident, could so undercut the desire of people to go out there to experience mountain Maryland, as they call it. That it would really cripple that part of the local economy.
Colby is right, there were people who were going to be able to lease their land and probably make some money if drilling had actually come to Maryland. But, on the other hand, there were folks out there who didn’t want that, who are looking at instead of [inaudible 00:16:35] drill rigs to their property, to bring solar panels to their property and who are concerned that if fracking came, it would be such a detriment that they wouldn’t want to make those investments in their property either. Those really were the concerns that we heard mainly, as well … Threats to the local homegrown tourism economy, primarily based on threats to the water.
KIM BROWN: Speaking of solar jobs … well, jobs from fracking that are now not coming to this state, but at the same time, Maryland has added, I believe, over 1,100 jobs in the solar industry just in 2016 alone. Eli, you’re really at the forefront of preparing the next generation of solar technicians among other tracks, as it’s not just solar installation available at the Baltimore Center for Green Careers. Are you concerned with the state’s ability to keep pace with being able to train enough workers in this industry to meet the demand of the jobs that are seemingly coming to the state in rapid pace?
ELI ALLEN: We feel confidant. As you mentioned, solar really represents the future of energy production in America and we’ve been seeing job growth upwards of 25 percent annually. While solar represents a small percentage right now of our overall energy production, right now, more people work in solar than in coal across the country. In Baltimore, we’ve been quickly increasing the number of people that we train. We train right now twice as many people for green careers as we did a couple years ago.
We’re committed within Baltimore of increasing those numbers and increasing those services so city residents are able to access those jobs. We’ve seen across the state, a growing investment not just in solar production, but also in the job training that’s necessary to connect people with those opportunities. We’ve really seen that expanding and as more opportunities come out in jobs to match the training resources to meet those business needs that employers are facing.
KIM BROWN: Maryland has the potential to be a real incubator for renewable energy careers in the future. When manufacturing jobs left the city, it decimated the working class. But, a new proposal to repurpose an old manufacturing landmark site in Baltimore City could blow in some new opportunities for residents.
Speaker 10: While the Trump administration is going full-speed ahead with fossil fuel extraction, some states are going in a different direction. A new poll shows that a whopping 71 percent of Maryland voters support doubling the state’s commitment to wind and solar power. Maryland’s republican governor, Larry Hogan, recently signed a fracking ban and the Maryland Public Service Commission is now considering proposals for new off-shore wind farms. Maryland would be the first state in the US to embrace this technology on a large scale.
The company Deep Water Wind is proposing to build 15 turbines off the coast of Ocean City. Another company, US Wind, is proposing a larger farm with 187 turbines, which could be completed by year 2022. Both companies say they will build manufacturing facilities in Baltimore County’s Sparrow’s Point, the historically industrial neighborhood that was home to the now debunked Bethlehem steel mill, which once employed thousands.
Lakeisha Green: The community was so wide-spread dependent upon those jobs there at Bethlehem Steel, when they left, it pretty much devastated the city.
Speaker 10: Many advocates like Lakeisha Green see the potential to bring back jobs to a community that’s still reeling from the effects of de-industrialization.
Lakeisha Green: Now, to know that we have an opportunity to bring back the wealth that it brought that having good paying jobs can bring to a city is an awesome opportunity.
KIM BROWN: I wanted to pose this question to you, Seth, and to Colby because what we hear a lot from the oil and gas industry, is that it is very important to make sure that there are jobs available for Americans. Are we pushing these energy extraction jobs to the detriment of our environment, to the detriment of clean water and clean air? Given the fact how heavily we rely on fossil fuels … Maryland, four-fifths of our energy consumption comes from coal-fired plants and nuclear. Are we too dependent on these means of energy?
COLBY FERGUSON: I think you bring up a very broad spectrum when you talk about oil and gas, and then you talk about natural gas versus petroleum versus coal. Then, you start to look at the technology that’s been put in place to make them better for the environment and to pull a lot of the toxins, that we’re naturally going up in through the burning and creating of energy, whatever it was through, whether it was gasoline or whether it was coal for making electricity.
I think what had to happen and what is happening is you have technology that’s being put in place to realize that we can’t have methane dissipating into the air and creating an additional greenhouse gas on top of all the car emissions and transportation that we have. But, at the same time, that is an industry that is existing. You have people that that’s their career, that’s their jobs. They’re generations into that. They grew up … their dad, their grandfather. Everyone was in that job and that’s kind of what’s built that town, municipality, or even that county is revolved around that industry.
If you just say you’re going to cut that industry off immediately and not give anything in replace, then you have the things that are very similar to what happened in Baltimore County, where you’ve dropped an industry and you didn’t have anything to replace it with. Now, we’re seeing these opportunities that are coming down the pike that are, quite frankly, ten, fifteen, twenty years late that should have been done twenty years ago as an alternative to versus just cutting something off and then saying, “Oh, well. We’ll get around to replacing it.”
People don’t have that ability. There’s not enough resiliency and there’s quite frankly, not enough jobs available in every environment and in every community to replace certain things. When you get particularly into rural communities, you see that. I think that there’s opportunities out there. I think one thing that I don’t see enough of in this state that I would like to see more of is the manufacturing side of it. I think we do need to bring back manufacturing. Manufacturing creates good jobs that are daily, blue-collar jobs. They’re ones that you can build a career around.
They’re not something that’s a fly by niner, where I come in and install a hundred acres worth of panels and then have to move to the next place and the next place and the next place. These people can be done in a municipality or a location where the density of the population is, put people back to work in large numbers, and give them jobs that have benefits and that have a lot of the components [inaudible 00:23:47], that they can walk and drive to work without having to really be [inaudible 00:23:53]. That’s an area I would like to see that needs to be expanded rapidly.
KIM BROWN: You should come over to the Baltimore Center for Green Careers because that’s exactly what Eli does. Seth, to you, I wanted to sort of piggyback on something that Colby was saying about how when there are communities that have been dependent on energy generation in the form of oil or natural gas … and you said that you come from exactly that kind of a place. Coming from four generations of people in your family who have worked in the oil and gas industry, are there efforts, from what you can tell, that … because there are jobs in cleaning up oil and gas, is there not? Coal-fired plants have to be updated, there are methods of putting stuff on smoke stacks to make sure that the pollutants are being filtered out. That is job creation within an industry that also helps to mitigate some of the damaging effects of it.
SETH WHITEHEAD: Talking about jobs … the Obama administration released a report towards the end of his final term that noted that natural gas is a feedstock for manufacturing and that’s led to a manufacturing renaissance since the Great Recession. I think that when you look at the fact that we’ve had a growing economy and at the same time, we’re the only nation that has had significant CO2 reductions, we’re at our lowest levels in 25 years, that it is clear that we can grow our economy and grow jobs while developing our natural gas resources.
Unfortunately, Maryland has taken the opportunity to have the regulations in place that could mitigate the risk of hydraulic fracturing. Several states haven’t done that and they’ve allowed fracking and they’ve allowed their renewable industries to flourish. I think Texas is a great example of that. My personal experience, in [inaudible 00:25:54] way, isn’t really the big picture here. The industry does support jobs in Illinois, but I think what you’re seeing in a grand nationwide view, is that the fracking revolution has supported millions of jobs and reduced our pollution. That’s really something that’s under-reported.
KIM BROWN: Mitch, I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to some of the things Seth said that I’m assuming you may disagree with slightly.
MITCH JONES: Slightly would be an understatement. I think the one thing I want to emphasize as were beginning to run short on time here is that it’s not enough to say that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If you believe the science of climate change, if you actually believe what the climate scientists are telling us, we can’t just reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We really have to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. That’s an imperative.
I think Maryland took an excellent step by saying that we were not going to become a part of the fracking industry and that we were going to keep as much of our natural gas in the ground as we possibly could. Colby is right, we have had gas extraction here in Maryland. There are still some wells out here, but they’re not fracked wells. We need to make the investments. I agree wholeheartedly, we have to now make the investments that are going to create jobs.
Those are going to come in energy efficiency retrofitting homes, that’s going to come in installing rooftop solar, it’s going to come in building utility [inaudible 00:27:24], it going to come in putting that great wind turbine factory here in Baltimore to create, I believe they said close to 7,000 jobs for the offshore wind industry. Those are the sorts of investments that we need to be making. Those are the sorts of decisions that our government, not only here in Maryland, but across the country, our governments needs to be making. Because again, if you believe the climate science and you actually look at what the science tells us, we don’t have time to simply reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we have to rapidly ramp those down and we have to begin by targeting the burning of fossil fuels.
KIM BROWN: Eli, I wanted to ask you about something that Colby said, as well. The return to manufacturing jobs, not only to Baltimore, which needs to happen, but across the country at large, do you see the solar industry filling that void in your opinion? Or renewable related technologies?
ELI ALLEN: Kim, I really think so. From manufacturing to solar energy installation to home weatherization, these sectors of the clean energy economy really fill a sweet spot in the labor market. Jobs that require some level of technical skills and some certifications, pay a family-sustaining wage, have health benefits, have career ladder advancement opportunities but at the same time, are accessible and don’t require an advanced degree.
[inaudible 00:28:39] in solar don’t require a high school diploma, but require people with the drive and the motivation to succeed in a job. It’s something that people can really build a career around. We have folks in solar we’ve graduated who’ve come back to the Center for Green Careers to get additional certifications for advancement to crew leader, [four-person 00:28:57] positions. We really see it as an opportunity to grow the number of those middle-skill jobs with advancement opportunities and with good benefits and sustaining wages.
KIM BROWN: Indeed, we’re going to have to leave that as the final note here. I’d like to thank all of our guests for joining us. Mitch Jones from Food and Water Watch, Colby Ferguson from the Maryland Farm Bureau, Eli Allen representing the Baltimore Center for Green Careers, and Seth Whitehead from Energy In Depth. Thank you all for joining us today right here on this episode of The Real Baltimore. We’ll see you next time.