Training enough solar workers quickly enough to match industry growth is a problem that we may not have solved on a national level yet, but in bullet-ridden East Los Angeles, Homeboy Industries has developed a program that is stunningly successful. Originally organized as a jobs-for-troubled-youth program in 1988 by Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle, pastor of the Dolores Mission parish in Boyle Heights, Homeboy Industries successfully opened a bakery and then a cafe, training at-risk and former gang members, along with ex-offenders to become contributing members of society. Then in 2009, the group branched out into solar training, contracting with the East Los Angeles Skills Center, which developed a solar curriculum for students sponsored by Homeboy. Today, their program is a national model, emulated widely.
“We have probably trained 500 solar workers, of which about 75 percent have passed the NABCEP [The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners] test after completing our program,” says Tyrone Prater, the solar program coordinator for Homeboy Industries. “And we are getting 82 percent job placement within 60 days after certification.
“Most of them work in the L.A. area, but through our cooperative job placement program with IBEW 569 [the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union] and other locals, our trainees have moved into jobs in various parts of the state.”
The response of the solar industry to their program has been very positive. “We can’t produce trainees fast enough to keep up with the demand,” says Prater. One solar developer that has tapped a number of Homeboy trainees is 8minutenergy Renewables, also based in Los Angeles. “Homeboy Industries is one of the few solutions out there that works. It arguably offers the nation’s most successful model for re-educating incarcerated people, and for providing them with opportunities,” says Tom Buttgenbach, president of the company.
8minutenergy used a dozen Homeboy trainees hired by IBEW 428 on the 260-MW Mount Signal Solar plant in Imperial Valley, Calif., the first of three phases of an 800-MW-DC complex that will be one of the largest of its kind in the world, the company claims. Power from the installation will be sold under a 25-year purchase agreement with Southern California Public Power Authority for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Buttgenbach says he’ll be using more of the trainees on the 90-MW Redwood Solar Farm project and the 150-MW Springbok Solar Farm in Kern County, for which construction begins in the first quarter of 2015 with an expected online date of June 2016. “We convinced IBEW to take on as many as the entire graduating classes from Homeboy Industries; once they have gone through the union’s own acceptance criteria, they become five-year apprentices and eventually journeyman electricians,” he says. “The union is very pleased with their work; some of these desert locations are not easy to tolerate,” he adds.
Homeboy Industries has pared up with a handful of other solar developers to place its trainees, but the strategic partnership with 8minutenergy is significant because of the size of the company, notes Prater. 8minutenergy, named after the amount of time it takes a photon from the sun to reach a solar panel on earth, has closed over $1 billion in solar power purchase agreements and has been awarded 400 MW in PPAs.
The Funding Challenge
The task of training solar workers at Homeboy is time-consuming and relatively costly. “Before our students are selected to take classes at the Skills Center, I teach them a solar basics course in house over a two-month period, so that I can assess who is ready to deal with a school environment,” Prater explains. “Then when they are ready, we send 20 students per quarter, four quarters per year for three months of classes; so at the end, they have received close to five months of training at the end of the course work.
“The students receive certificates from the Skill Center, and then we pay for them to take the NABCEP test. We also work with other non-profits to do a couple of small installations directly, so that they can get in some field work.”
Homeboy Industries spends close to $1,000 per student for books and training at the Skills Center. With graduating classes of 80 students per year, the group needs funding of close to $160,000 a year in donations. Luckily, community and corporate response has been positive thus far. From local musician crowd-funding to the Sierra Club to Fortune 500 donations, Homeboy is expanding. Recently, the group added a course in AutoCAD design for some of its students who had physical limitations, including old age, that precluded installation jobs.
Major Donors Respond
One key corporate donor for Homeboy has been aircraft giant Boeing. Through its Global Corporate Citizenship (GCC) organization, Boeing was an early supporter of the group, donating $45,000 to Homeboy in 2009 and has taken a position on the non-profit’s board of directors. “Homeboy’s Solar Panel Program is unique because it helps former gang members build a better life for themselves and their families in a way that benefits the community and the environment,” said Kevin Ober, a spokesman for the community investor, health and human services unit of Boeing, in a recent company note.
This year, television station NBC4 Southern California, in partnership with The NBCUniversal Foundation, donated $50,000 to Homeboy Industries, as part of the former’s 21st Century Solutions grant challenge, which recognizes and supports “innovative, high-impact initiatives in the areas of civic engagement, education, environment, jobs and economic empowerment, media arts and technology.” Similarly, the California Endowment donated $100,000 to Homeboy this year; the California Endowment is a private, statewide health foundation that was established by Blue Cross of California’s for-profit subsidiary, WellPoint Health Networks.
Donations from several solar manufacturers also have helped Homeboy complete solar installations at non-profits to provide on-site experience to their trainees. Among these, solar solutions provider ecoSolargy, based in Irvine, donated 9 kW of solar modules to the organization for installation on the Homeboy Industries headquarters, on Bruno Street near Dodger stadium. Orion Solar Racking also donated the racking needed for the project. And GRID Alternatives is managing the installation of the project.
“Homeboy Industries is doing important work to help inner-city youth have a second chance in life,” said Alan Lee, CEO of ecoSolargy, in a press statement.
“Two of our members have been regular GRID Alternatives volunteers, helping bring solar to low-income families across Los Angeles, so we are excited to partner with them to help Homeboy Industries save money with solar power,” echoed Bob Sinai, CEO of Orion Solar, in a December statement.