CEO of residential solar installer survived gangs and prison, only to face structural racism in his career


From pv magazine USA.

Kenneth Wells, chief executive of LA-based residential solar installer O&M Solar Services, grew up in Compton and has lived a rather different life to many of his PV peers.

“Start with my background,” he told pv magazine: “A single-parent household; gangs; went to prison in eleventh grade; six years in the criminal system – it’s not a reform system with [an] initiative to reform, just being housed for the duration of your sentence. What do you expect from that young man?”

Wells said he was lucky enough to have worked with Homeboy Industries, an organization helping recently-incarcerated people re-enter the community with gainful skills. Homeboy works with Grid Alternatives – and that organization helped get Wells the training and hours he needed to become a solar installer. He worked at a “mom and pops” solar installer and other places before he landed at Sunrun and eventually became a construction manager.

Eight years on from prison, Wells was certified with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and making $80,000 a year. Today, he runs his own solar company, but the path was filled with structural barriers for a young Black man from Southern Los Angeles.

Uneven playing field

“Employers do background checks, and no one is hiring an ex-felon,” said Wells. “That alone is enough to discourage someone from applying to jobs.” Wells had to start his solar career at temp agencies and small installers because “nine times out of ten they don’t screen, but nine times out of ten they don’t pay either – or you don’t have benefits.” He was forced to go through temp agencies “getting hired through the temp agency and working at the same company that denied you, while getting paid $14 per hour instead of $20 per hour.”

Adewale OgunBadejo, workforce development manager at Grid Alternatives of Greater Los Angeles, said Wells was forced to go “a secondary way” – getting paid 25% less – “plus, he has different healthcare and he’s working in a staffing agency.”

Training dearth

The installer spent inordinate amounts of time on public transport, said OgunBadejo, because “there are no solar training programs south of the 10 Freeway in cities like Compton or areas like Watts, which are largely African-American. His commute ended up being two or three hours per trip. Also, he could not get the financing he needed to provide for his clients [as an option for them to purchase solar] because of his past, though his company was revenue positive. This created a major challenge when it came to clients who wanted solar but needed a financing or lease option.”

Wells the CEO said: “Who knows where we would have been, had we gotten that financing?”

Grid Alternatives’ OgunBadejo, who was speaking in a webinar held by management consultancy Global Leadership Associates (GLA), said: “The solution is not just helping Ken. It’s not a program to get him a bus pass to travel to training, it’s getting him a program in his community. California leads the nation with clean energy jobs and yet in our African-American and minority community, we are asking for a training program to come to these communities … We need to do something different.”

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OgunBadejo has been with Grid Alternatives for ten years and he’s known and worked with Wells for eight. The organization has helped 5,500 residents with training and seen 570 trainees reach gainful employment in solar-related industries since 2012. Grid is making job training accessible to the under-served in Watts, Compton and South Central Los Angeles.

Addressing systemic racism

“No matter how well-meaning or well-intended the person may be that’s a part of the system, if the system itself is designed on inequitable principles, then it can’t do anything but produce systemic racism,” said Saun Hough, vocational services administrator at community non-profit group Shields for Families, who was speaking on the same GLA webinar as OgunBadejo. “We’re in this movement where the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery has sparked a national, even a worldwide awakening, to systemic racism.”

OgunBadejo added: “Systemic racism is as ingrained into the history of America as is the country’s national pastime – baseball.”

Back to solar systems

Wells’ solar firm handles what he called “orphan systems,” a growing segment of the solar market which includes:

  • Systems that have never received permission to operate
  • Clean-ups after a bad installation
  • Systems which need removal
  • Customers with a failed inverter and missing installer
  • New property owners who want their systems checked

The CEO says he’s getting “more and more calls” for his solar roof services and his business also handles third-party installation work from companies such as Semper Solaris and Maxgen Commercial.

Having climbed the ladder, Wells said he wants “to be a stakeholder and make decisions to steer the industry.” He said he would like to build a competitive brand like Sunrun, but with the core values of a Grid Alternatives entity and a “focus on workforce development, and including people most impacted by environmental issues.”

He concluded: “I’ve been the poster-child of what is possible if the individual is given the right opportunity and [the] right assistance.”

Grid Alternatives was founded in 2001 with a simple idea: Free, clean electricity from the sun available to all. The aim is to make solar technology practical and accessible for low-income communities while providing pathways to clean energy jobs. Learn more about partnering with GA here. Support GA here.

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