It is expected over the several few years that utility companies across the United States will spend between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion on infrastructure investments. Those investments and the projected growth of the energy industry could potentially translate into jobs and ownership, investment and partnership opportunities for African Americans. But African-American industry officials, regulators and entrepreneurs fear that unless there’s a radical shift, Black people will miss out on the myriad opportunities.
“A multi-trillion industry is evolving before our eyes and we’re getting peanuts,” said David K. Owens, executive vice president of Business Operations, Group and Regulatory Affairs at the Edison Electric Institute. “There are evolving opportunities for high-paying jobs. We have an aging infrastructure … and an aging workforce. The energy industry has 520 million employees. Currently, 9 percent are near retirement, 14 percent will retire in five years, and an additional 42 percent will move out of the industry in the next eight years.”
Collette Honorable, a commissioner with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, agreed. “This is a new never before opportunity for the United States to export natural gas,” she said. “This is a really incredibly dynamic time but I’m concerned about the diversity of employees. Forty percent of the energy sector is eligible for retirement. We need people with IT and cybersecurity experience. We need not just engineers and attorneys, but human resources, administration and people who can stage after a weather event. “
Honorable and Owens served on a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference with two other colleagues who discussed the new energy economy and the prospects for African Americans to secure a foothold and enhance their presence in that particular space.
The renewable energy sector includes solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and energy from the ocean. President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan encourages energy businesses to use more renewable energy, said Charles Rice, president and chief executive officer of Entergy New Orleans, Inc., a $750 million-a-year electric and gas utility.
For the first time in history, said Honorable, the United States is producing prodigious amounts of shale natural gas that’s being exported oversees. She and Owens said America is enjoying a natural gas manufacturing renaissance that bucks previous downward trends. Between 2009 and 2014, gas production increased at a rate of 4 percent a year.
“There are new techniques to draw natural gas, with about 100 major industrial projects slated to spend $90 [billion] to $100 billion through 2019,” said Owens. “There will be an increase in natural gas demands for the next 25 years.”
Gilbert Campbell, founder and CEO of Volt Energy in the District, represents one of a marginal fraction of African Americans who own or have invested in the solar energy business. Volt finances, builds, owns and operates solar assets, but he acknowledged the difficulties of minority entrepreneurs “taking advantage of the new frontier.”
“There are challenges. Worldwide in 2015, according to Bloomberg, $270 billion was invested in renewable energy, half of that in solar energy,” he said. “And $38.5 billion was invested in clean energy investments in the U.S. The percentage of African Americans who own assets is less than 1 percent.
“The ship hasn’t sailed yet,” he continued, “but we need to get involved before it sails.”
All too often, Rice said, minority companies lack the scale, cash flow and financing to compete against the power players in the industry, but if a company has a power purchase agreement like Volt Energy does, that can be a game-changer.
All of the panelists spoke of the importance of exposing young people to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. They stressed the importance of partnering with corporations; greater federal oversight, regulation and enforcement; ensuring that the federal government enforces, and coaxing energy businesses to adhere to minority set-asides of at least 35 percent.
Owens said those interested in closing the energy divide and increasing minority numbers are struggling to catch up.
“We’ve got to get better organized,” he said. “We’re pulling together consortiums to produce a powerful voice.”