The evolution in how the world generates, distributes and consume energy offers a multi-trillion dollar opportunity in coming decades. But will that opportunity be inclusive? Will its benefits be distributed equitably, particularly to minority groups that so often have found themselves left out in the past? The answer is unfortunately far from clear, given their current employment levels in renewable energy, electrified transportation or other growing areas of the new energy economy.
In 2021, BloombergNEF and the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE) have formed a partnership to collaborate on events, recruiting and other efforts to spread the word about lower-carbon energy opportunities with an eye toward ultimately expanding African-American participation in these growth sectors. To kick off the initiative, BNEF hosted AABE interim president and CEO Ralph Cleveland at its annual New York summit on April 13 for an online conversation with BNEF commercial director Kevin McGhie. The two were joined by entrepreneur Jamez Staples, founder of Minneapolis-based solar developer Renewable Energy Partners.
Prior to assuming his current role with AABE, Cleveland spent 30 years in the energy sector, including a 10-year stint overseeing AGL Resources’ central utility shared services (AGL was acquired in 2016 by Southern Company). He also served as CEO of several of AGL’s subsidiaries. In addition to his interim role with AABE, he serves as head of customer operations and business transformation at AIG Property and Casualty Insurance.
AABE was founded in the 1970’s to give Blacks and other minorities a greater voice in the energy industry, said Cleveland. “Really it’s about increasing the representation and being a voice for the aspirations of African-Americans in this space,” he said, adding that the group seeks to represent other minorities as well.
Cleveland noted that AABE had played an important role in his own career development over the two decades he has been associated with the organization. “The ability to build relationships across the industry has been invaluable and it was the only place, quite frankly, I could go to learn about the impacts of some of the policies on our community,” he said. Cleveland noted that industry leaders and policy-makers often do not fully recognize how energy policies directly effect the lives of Black Americans.
AABE’s multiple chapters across the U.S. provide mentoring and networking opportunities in the Black community and Cleveland noted that the group serves young people through scholarships and other assistance. “So often in our community, there is not a great deal of transparency and awareness around what the opportunities are in the energy space for a career,” he said. “Our members are pretty passionate about providing that transparency.”
Cleveland said AABE’s overriding goal is about enhancing opportunities, which includes helping those at the start of their careers, but also providing a support network as African-Americans move up the corporate ladder in the energy sector. “We want to see more African-Americans in leadership roles and contributing to the culture of the various firms,” he said. “When we talk about diversity, when we talk about justice and equity, it is so important first to have the right level of representation and we know that’s not the current state.”
Expanding diversity within the energy ranks won’t come without hard work though. Many managers simply lack the skill to effectively implement changes that achieve greater diversity. And of course, not all are bought in. “First there’s a shift to recognize the value of the skill,” he said. “Then there’s the recognition that I’ve got to time and energy and effort into learning a new skill.”
He said AABE seeks to foster that awareness. “I think we can agree the world is getting more complex, tensions are getting are higher and higher.” He said the goal isn’t just about upping the numbers but improving organizations’ performance while building a culture that is truly inclusive. “We really want to help educate all managers and all leaders relative to this particular issue,” he said. The goal is to knock down some of barriers his generation faced so that new entrants into the energy world will find more open doors.
For his part, Staples spoke of the challenges and successes he has achieved in seeking to develop solar. He noted that as an African-American running a solar start-up in Minneapolis, he often faced one major additional hurdle other entrepreneurs may not: “the belief gap.”
That gap has at times meant he had to put extra effort to persuade customers and partners his firm would “do the job and do the job right,” adding that that has served as extra motivation over his career. He also said he viewed his own role somewhat more broadly than merely installing solar. “It’s not business as usual, it’s business with intention.”
Staples described the bureaucratic challenges associated with installing community solar projects in Minneapolis as well. He said it took months to convince officials that the roof of a high school would be best. They dragged their heels, insisting the roof itself needed to be re-surfaced, a process that took two years. The work of installing the 366-kilowatt PV system was a cinch by comparison. “30 days after the roof was done the solar system was there,” he said.
He noted that financing has long been a challenge for businesses like his. A tiny silver lining from the George Floyd tragedy was that in its wake, financial institutions have been more proactive in seeking to provide credit to Black-owned businesses. US Bank extended him credit to complete the high school solar project and start another. “Before that, there was nobody talking about financing.”
Staples said that young people in the Black community do not naturally gravitate to opportunities in the clean energy space. He has worked with the state to create a job-training program. “If you want diversity in the utility space,” he said. “You have to create these pathways.”
Cleveland noted that the issues are broad, systemic and require a holistic approach. “Unless you build a collaborative it is hard for any one company to make a systemic change in this space,” he said. “We got to start connecting the dots, we have to.”
To watch the full interview, click here.