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

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Kenneth Wells, the CEO of O&M Solar Services, a Los Angeles-based residential solar installer, grew up in Compton, California and has lived a very different life than most solar CEOs.

“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 no initiative to reform — just being housed for the duration of your sentence.”

”What do you expect from that young man?” Wells asks.

He said he was lucky enough to have worked with Homeboy Industries, an organization that helps recently incarcerated people re-enter the community with gainful skills. Homeboy partners with GRID Alternatives — and that organization helped get Wells the training and hours he needed to become a solar installer.

Wells worked at a “mom and pops” solar installer and a few other places before he landed at Sunrun and eventually became a construction manager.

Eight years removed from prison, he was NABCEP certified and making $80,000 a year. Today, Wells 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. That alone is enough to discourage someone from applying to jobs,” said Wells, who had to start his solar career at temp agencies or “mom and pop” 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.”

Wells had 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, emphasized that Ken was forced to go “a secondary way” — getting paid 25% less, plus he has different healthcare and he’s working in a staffing agency.”

No training programs nearby

Wells spent inordinate amounts of time on public transit 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 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,” added OgunBadejo.

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

“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. It doesn’t make sense,” said OgunBadejo. “We need to do something different.”

OgunBadejo has been with GRID Alternatives for ten years and he’s known and worked with Ken Wells for eight. The organization has helped 5,500 local residents with hands-on training and seen 570 of its trainees reach gainful employment in solar-related industries since 2012. The organization is making job training accessible to the underserved 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, the vocational services administrator at Shields for Families. (Quotes from Hough and OgunBadejo are from this GLA webinar.)

Hough said, “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.”

These organizations, and more like them, provide much-needed individual support and workforce development, but the solution will have to be systemic — like the problem.

Back to solar systems

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

  • Systems that never received permission to operate
  • Cleaning up the mess after a bad install
  • Systems that need to be removed
  • A customer with a failed inverter and a missing original installer
  • A new property owner that wants a system checked out

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

Now that he’s gained these vocational and entrepreneurial skills, Wells wants “to be a stakeholder and make decisions to steer the industry.” He’d like to build a competitive brand like Sunrun but with the core values of a GRID Alternatives and a “focus on workforce development and including people most impacted by environmental issues.”

Wells said, “I’ve been the poster-child of what is possible if the individual is given the right opportunity and right assistance.”

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GRID Alternatives was founded in 2001 with a simple idea: free, clean electricity from the sun should be available to everyone. The aim is to make solar PV 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.