05/23/2012 06:01 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

LA's Solar Gangs

I would never have met José Osuna if he hadn't looked so out of place. As an editor at Photon magazine, a publication that covers all things solar, I spend a fair amount of time at conferences. As important as this is for my work, it can also be an exhausting blur, requiring lots of respites from windowless convention center rooms. I was getting some much needed air at the Solar Power International (SPI) conference in Dallas last October when I first caught sight of Osuna and a colleague, who had just finished taking some goofy pictures of one another around the statutes of the cattle in Pioneer Plaza. With his shaved and tattooed head, Osuna was hard to miss, especially in comparison to all the lawyers, finance guys and suits inside the convention center.

Curious, I went up and introduced myself, wondering what brought the two men to Dallas. At the time, Osuna and his colleague, Thaddeus Skiles, who run the solar panel training program for Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, seemed startled that I even approached them. Homeboy prepares ex-gang members and those who have been incarcerated for careers in the solar industry. But the two had already concluded that the fact that they look like they've spent time in gangs and prison (which they have) was making other conventioneers wary of them.

This is unfortunate for many reasons. First of all, as I learned during the course of my reporting about the solar work being done at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles -- the cover story in the June issue of Photon -- companies that are unwilling to consider those who have a criminal or gang background are potentially closing themselves off from a pool of talented and highly motivated workers. That's not just my opinion, either. An impressive percentage of those who go through the Homeboy program pass a rigorous third-party solar installer certification exam on their first attempt. But there's something much deeper at work here as well. Many people, myself included, were attracted to work in solar because of its transformational potential. For me, as I suspect is the case for many, that has largely meant the potential solar has to address climate change.

But I now understand the tremendous potential solar has to transform individual lives, especially of those who have made terrible mistakes and come from disadvantaged backgrounds. While I'm sure it's tempting to interpret this as a plea for charity, it's not that at all -- rather it's a matter of realism and societal self-interest. Think of it simply in terms of numbers: the proposed prison budget for 2012 in California alone was around $9 billion, an amount that is a significant reduction from past years. While there are many complex reasons that prison cost is so high, an important one is the horrible recidivism rate. In other words, not enough released inmates manage to find jobs and make their way into mainstream society as taxpaying, law abiding citizens.

It doesn't have to be that way. A continuing commitment by policymakers to grow the US solar market and a willingness by photovoltaic (PV) companies to hire those who prove themselves could take a big bite out of what is now appropriately derided as our country's prison-industrial complex. And despite what the champions of fossil fuels say, policy support for solar these days is not a boondoggle. Thanks to the rapidly decreasing price of solar panels and a maturing industry, the amount of money needed to provide incentives to encourage solar installations has plummeted and continues to decline. The California Solar Initiative, for example, originally offered $4.50 for each watt of PV a customer had installed. To put that in perspective, a rooftop solar system with 5,000 watts needed $22,500 in incentives to make it economically viable for most people. Today, incentives have declined to just $0.20 in many places and solar demand -- and the potential for job creation -- is strong. I'm still waiting for the fossil fuel industry to present their roadmap to an incentives-free marketplace.

I'm not so naïve as to think that all former gang members and ex-cons are nobly toiling towards some righteous goal. But I've now met enough who simply want the opportunity to work hard and make a clean break from their past to be convinced that it's a worthwhile investment. And as a growing industry in need of skilled and highly motivated workers, solar is in a unique position to provide those precious opportunities. Many of those who have gone through programs like the one at Homeboy Industries have literally bet their lives and their futures on there being places for them in the solar industry. It will be a better industry and a better country if they get that chance. And we'll know when we've reached that point when the sight of Osuna at a future SPI prompts a mere shrug of the shoulders.

Chris Warren is editor-in-chief of the U.S. edition of Photon magazine, a publication that covers the solar industry.

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