Mark Hall works in the flatlands of Oakland to give young people of color a leg up in the clean energy sector. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
As soon as I read the news that Governor Brown signed SB 100, a bill requiring California to become 100-percent carbon-free and clean energy efficient by 2045, I sent a text to my friend Mark Hall.
How is that possible?, I asked. Who’s going to make it happen?
Hall said he’d break it all down for me—including how it affects low-income kids in the flatlands of Oakland. We agreed to meet and talk about energy at a café called Kilovolt. Fitting.
The café is in West Oakland; it’s one of those dog-friendly joints that serves open-face sandwiches with avocado smear. Hall pulled up wearing a blue collared shirt and some avocado colored pants, and carrying a box full of materials he was set to deliver to Skyline High School, his alma mater.
Hall said he’d gotten the materials free of charge, notebooks full of information about developing clean energy lesson plans, simply by requesting them from PG&E.
Hall explained to me that PG&E, longtime energy provider to Alameda County, has partnered with East Bay Community Energy to deliver clean, renewable energy at lower rates. This model has been replicated clear across the state; it’s called Community Choice Aggregation. Marin County was the first on record to adopt it.
But that’s the higher-level info about how California is moving toward 100-percent clean energy. I wanted to know about the boots-on-the-ground kind of work. I needed more tangible examples; this clean energy conversation had always seemed too lofty to wrap my mind around.
My earliest memories of the concept of clean energy, for example, had something to do with the windmills near the Altamont Pass—the ones we saw when we drove down to Disneyland. And even then, there was a disconnect between how the energy is generated to how I could use it as a consumer, let alone get a career in the field.
Hall doesn’t have that problem. His work is integrated into the the clean energy pipeline, from working to inform people about financial assistance on their energy bills to breaking down legislative bills. An African American man from Oakland who’s working to ensure young people from Oakland know what’s up when it comes to clean energy—if he’s not an anomaly, who is?
Hall works with Dr. Ayo Akatugba, director of the Green Energy Pathway at Skyline, to ensure that students on the hillside are clear on the concept of clean energy, as well as to promote career pathways. In the flatlands of East and West Oakland, Hall has teamed up with Johnnie Williams, CIS Director at Laney College. Williams, who knows Hall from their high school football days, teaches classes about clean energy at Oakland High, McClymonds and Oakland Tech; Williams tells me that all of the classes are good for community college credits.
Hall has also teamed up with local organizations in support of Oakland Parks and Rec's initiative to create a business plan competition for people ages 14-21 who live within a mile radius of either Willie Keyes Recreation Center at Poplar Park or the Brookdale Recreation Center on High Street. All the young folks have to do is attend a few workshops and then submit an idea about creating clean sustainable energy, and they’ll have a chance to win $1,000. (The application deadline is Nov. 7.)
And the best part: the business plan doesn’t have to be your traditional PowerPoint presentation. Nope, instead, Hall says they’d prefer if it were done artistically.
“There’s a certain level of creativity that’s expressed through traditional business plans,” Hall told me, as we sat on a bench outside the café. “But there’s a whole different level of communications that gets expressed through arts and culture.” He said it’s the old theory about some people being “left brained” and some people being “right brained.”
He also said it’s similar to the tech industry, where teaching people about coding and engineering can seem too lofty of a concept, causing it to go over a lot of peoples’ heads. But if it were done in an interpretive way, say maybe through song, dance—hell, even a joke or a meme—people of different backgrounds might gravitate to the industry a bit more.
“Different backgrounds” is often code language for low-income people of color, a demographic that’s largely been disenfranchised from the tech industry since before Al Gore advocated for the internet. Hall fears the same type of exclusion will occur in the burgeoning clean energy industry. According to some of the current stats about the industry, Hall has reason to be alarmed.
“Building science occupation jobs were 87.2% Male and 79% White (Not Hispanic or Latino),” according to a 2015 report from the National Institute of Building Sciences.
It’s important to note that California has more energy efficiency jobs than any other state, more than 300,000. That’s more than double the number of those in Texas, the state in second place, according to a report from e2.org and E4TheFuture.Org.
Now that you’ve grasped just how many clean energy jobs are in California, and just how white and male the industry is, check this out: according to MyNextMove.Org, a site backed by the U.S. Department of Labor, California doesn’t have a single state-approved apprenticeship program for energy auditors; that occupation isn’t even listed on the official government page for apprenticeships in California.
So, there’s a huge barrier to entry to an industry that’s obviously going to grow in the next couple of decades given the recent legislation signed by Governor Brown. Although apprenticeships aren’t the only ticket into the game, they serve as an inexpensive clear path to a long career in the world of clean energy. Otherwise, Hall tells me, a lot of people get into this industry by way of family members’ professions or expensive college classes; two routes which have inherent hurdles for outsiders.
I was impressed. Hall had managed to not only explain to me what the move toward clean energy was all about, but where the gaps were, as well as what’s at stake if these gaps aren’t filled.
Hall’s boots-on-the-ground work with young people in Oakland isn’t just about the future of our community. It speaks directly to the future of our country’s economy—which we all know has influence on the future of our country’s judicial system, education system, political system, you name it.
And Hall isn’t just a clean energy evangelist, trying to get young people employed in the industry—he understands that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. He’s also focused on the people who are overpaying every month on their energy bills.
Hall told me about the California Alternate Rates for Energy program, or “C.A.R.E” accounts, which are financial assistance programs for energy customers. If you still get a paper bill in the mail, you get annual pamphlets for it. And if you're like most people, you probably give it a passing glance before throwing it in the trash.
Hall wants to make people aware of it. Again, working with his childhood buddy Williams at Laney College, he's backing an effort to map over 47,000 buildings all around Oakland where people are eligible for this assistance. The buildings will be mapped by some of Williams’ students at Laney, and then the occupants will be contacted, and asked about having energy audits conducted on their buildings. These audits will show customers ways they can spend less money on their monthly bills.
For an idea of what this might look like, check out this map that charts the energy and water usage of 26,000 buildings in New York from 2013–2014. Through this process, New York not only helped a bunch of people on their energy and water bills, but also created over 7,700 jobs in three years.
Hall becomes animated when talking about this topic, his eyes get large and he talks with his hands. His passion is infectious. And he gets it: you say the words clean energy, and people often think it’s a concept beyond them. Hall breaks it down in layman’s terms. Like when I asked where we traditionally got energy in the first place, Hall responded by talking about fossil fuels and nuclear energy—like, how Homer Simpson worked at a power plant.
I was like, “Oh, I know Homer Simpson!”
Through our café convo, I got it. Well, I got enough to start to understand how California will move toward becoming more energy efficient. And more importantly, I learned how the next “boom” won’t necessarily be about coding and engineering, but clean energy development and implementation.
And just when it was all making sense to me, Hall started telling me about Green Bonds and how the S&P market works. There wasn’t enough coffee in the café to allow my brain to comprehend it all.
I let him talk, though, all the while thinking of something he'd told me when we first sat down, a quote about the long game involved in California becoming clean by 2045: “You can’t boil the whole ocean at one time.”
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.