With pliers in one pant pocket and a phone playing a ’70s electronic song in the other, Naomi Hawk stabilized a row of solar panels on an apartment roof in Southeast Washington.
She has worked with New Columbia Solar installing panels across the District since July. A program called Solar Works DC, created in 2017 through the city’s Department of Employment Services and Department of Energy and Environment, helped her get there.
Solar Works DC has two goals: provide job skills to participants and low-cost renewable energy to building owners by paying workers to learn to install solar panels in low-income neighborhoods.
“You can see not only the return on the investment for the individual that’s receiving training, but it’s also making an impact in a community, and it’s helping to improve this world,” said Unique Morris-Hughes, director of the Department of Employment Services.
Solar Works DC aims to install free solar systems to 300 homes by 2020, reducing energy costs by about $600 a year per home. Since the program’s launch, it has trained 100 workers and expects to double that by next year. Solar Works DC has cost taxpayers $2.3 million to date.
The program comes as the market for solar energy continues to grow, according to the International Energy Agency. Jobs related to solar power are expected to increase by 7 percent this year, according to a 2018 report by the nonprofit Solar Foundation. Solar job opportunities in the District grew by 25 percent in 2016, according to the city’s Sustainable DC 2.0 plan.
But at this time last year, Hawk didn’t have a job.
“At that time, I was just like, ‘I have to get out of this,’ ” said Hawk, a 27-year-old D.C. resident. She wanted to return to studies at Montgomery College, but outstanding student loans made that impossible.
Hawk said one email about Solar Works DC from the nonprofit United Black Workers Center dragged her out of the void in which she felt trapped.
The 12-week training included solar installations and CPR and Occupational Safety and Health Administration certifications.
The first time she climbed a ladder, Hawk said, “My honest first thought was: ‘What the hell am I doing?’ ” But once she adjusted, she didn’t want to come down.
Hawk said she attended speed interviews held through the program where she met two representatives from New Columbia Solar — including her current boss, Mason Holmes. Three weeks later, she started a full-time job with the company. The process taught her a lot about herself, Hawk said.
On the roof of an apartment building one recent overcast morning, Hawk discussed her passion for photography, urban planning and sustainability. She’s been interested in sustainability since her childhood, despite growing up in an area that didn’t offer a lot of outdoor recreation, an interest she made clear when interviewing for the position.
“I think Solar Works is doing a good job of getting nontraditional people inside the workforce, people who don’t have traditional access to jobs or training,” Hawk said, as she secured a final solar panel with a windbreaker to prevent it from flying away.
Before going on break, she gave her boss a high five.
“Solar Works DC is a great program to get that fire started and excite them and give them the knowledge they need to just start running with it,” said Holmes, a construction manager. He said Hawk’s passion for renewable energy reminds him of himself.
According to the Solar Foundation, black workers make up 7.6 percent of the industry, while making up 13 percent of the overall U.S. workforce.
Morris-Hughes said she does not know of other programs like Solar Works DC. “Now, minorities are able to participate in the solar industry in a way that other jurisdictions don’t have or haven’t seen,” she said.
The program offers training in spring, summer and fall. The summer cohort draws from the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program.
Aaron Ray, a 23-year-old senior at Ohio University, spent six weeks with Solar Works DC as part of the summer program. Ray, who grew up in the District, has participated in the employment program since he was 14. But this summer spent working with Solar Works DC was his favorite.
Most of the week was classroom learning, he said. But Thursdays and Fridays were spent on job sites installing solar panels, with 10 participants split into ground and roof teams at each site.
“It was nice,” he said, “just being able to talk to people from different paths about where they’re at and what they’re trying to do and learning from that.”
Ray learned to conquer his fear of heights on the ladder.
Another lesson was not to let outside negativity affect his life.
Ray said he struggled at the beginning of college and switched his major as he tried to figure out what he wanted to do, eventually designing his own major in technology and project management. Participating in Solar Works DC also inspired him to learn more about agriculture and environmental balance.
While some companies don’t see the benefits of sustainability, Ray said, Solar Works DC does. He said he supports “companies who are trying to actively help those people and create an easier life for people who really need it.”
“I can’t not get behind that,” he said.