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Video

A push for solar energy at Temple University

Solar States rolls out the green carpet from The Temple News on Vimeo.

Cheat Sheet

Sort on time? Read the Cliff Notes on this story.

  • Solar States outfits residential and commercial buildings with the photovoltaic panels that capture sunlight to turn into electricity. 
  • Solar States founder, Micah Gold-Markel, also wants to save the blue collar economy in his hometown of Philadelphia by making sure that Philadelphians of all stripes can be part of the burgeoning renewable energy economy by providing them with hands on training at the least, and good-paying jobs at best. 
  • Solar States have hundreds of residential clients, as well as institutions like Temple University and Swarthmore College. 
  • The certified B-Corporation is about to undertake its biggest job yet: installing roughly 9,000 solar panels on top of four sites for SEPTA. 
  • In 2015, the city announced a 10-year, $1 billion public/private investment plan to shift 25,000 Philly homes to renewable energy sources.
  • After a year and a half of volunteer teaching at Youthbuild, Gold-Markel began to hire students from the program to help him with Solar States’ first big mission: installing the third-largest solar array in Philadelphia at the Crane Arts Building.
  • Solar States now has 23 employees. Scoring a gig with Solar States is a pretty big get: All employees are full-time, and the starting wage is $13.50 an hour, with the opportunity to move up in the company quickly.
  • So far, says Gold-Markel, between 150 and 200 people have taken classes or trained with Solar States.

Meet The Disruptor: Solar States

The growing B Corporation is bringing solar energy to houses and businesses throughout the region—and bringing blue collar Philadelphians into the green energy economy

The growing B Corporation is bringing solar energy to houses and businesses throughout the region—and bringing blue collar Philadelphians into the green energy economy

It’s not enough, for Micah Gold-Markel, that he’s trying to save the planet, one solar energy installation at a time. The founder of Solar States, a certified B Corporation, also wants to save the blue collar economy in his hometown of Philadelphia.

Solar States outfits residential and commercial buildings with the photovoltaic panels that capture sunlight to turn into electricity; Gold-Markel says they have hundreds of residential clients, as well as institutions like Temple University and Swarthmore College. He says the business, which is “minorly profitable,” has grown 100 percent, in terms of both profitability and hiring, in each of the last three years, and is on pace to hit that mark again in fiscal year 2017. It now has 23 full time employees, and is about to undertake its biggest job yet: installing roughly 9,000 solar panels on top of four sites for SEPTA. Gold-Markel calls the job “transformative.”

Just as important to Gold-Markel as the growth of his business, however, is its social impact. Most of his hires are blue collar Philadelphians, many of whom have been out of the workforce for years. The goal of Solar States, says Gold-Markel, is not just to bring solar to Philly, but to make sure that Philadelphians of all stripes can be part of the burgeoning renewable energy economy by providing them with hands on training at the least, and good-paying jobs at best.

Nationally, green collar jobs are a fast-growing sector of the energy industry. In 2014, just north of 76,000 people were employed in full time jobs related to coal mining; in the same year, more than 173,000 Americans were employed in jobs related to solar energy, most of whom were at least tangentially involved in panel installation.

And Philly is the exact right city to be in for a burgeoning green energy company. In 2015, the city announced a 10-year, $1 billion public/private investment plan to shift 25,000 Philly homes to renewable energy sources. As part of that effort, a Philly non-profit, the Philadelphia Energy Authority, is examining bids from area solar companies to install panels on 500 homes by the end of 2018; Solar States will be one of the installers for the project. The scene, as the kids say, is jumping, and prospects for solar companies seem to improve each year.

Nationally, green collar jobs are a fast-growing sector of the energy industry. In 2014, just north of 76,000 people were employed in full time jobs related to coal mining; in the same year, more than 173,000 Americans were employed in jobs related to solar energy, most of whom were at least tangentially involved in panel installation.

Gold-Markel himself has had something of an incredibly roundabout trip to being a solar energy prophet. He spent time in both private schools—he doesn’t say that he was kicked out; more diplomatically, he says he was “asked to leave”—and public schools in Philly. He never went to college; rather, he found himself, as so many of us do, embroiled in the Philly hip hop scene, working as a promoter. At one point, he represented Schoolly D; he was, he says, minorly involved in the drafting of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force theme song.

From there, Gold-Markel sort of stumbled into software development. It wasn’t until the birth of his daughter in 2008 that Gold-Markel had grown tired of bouncing from job to job. He wanted to have something on hand, something to show his daughter, some proof of his achievement. He wanted a vocation.

“I wanted to be able to show her something real,” he says. “I mean, when she’s older, what am I going to show her?”

It was at around this time that Gold-Markel began to develop an interest in the green energy business; he had attended a conference at which Van Jones discussed the future of renewable energy, and was taken in by the possibilities. Not being one to take half-measures, he immersed himself in the study of photovoltaic energy, and drafted up plans for a company called Solar States, which would both work to install solar arrays and serve as a vocational training program for underprivileged Philadelphians.

The notion of opening up a vocational program, he says, had come to him when he was a student at Friends Select School, where he had time to wander around Philly and make friends with homeless and transient men he met on the street. A lot of them, it seemed, were capable, sociable people, but had no formal education or access to training. He wanted to be there for them, all those years later. But there was a problem.

“I knew nothing about solar power. I mean, I knew nothing,” says Gold-Markel. “It’s embarrassing. In fact, I have no idea why I was so confident that this could work. After I started the company, I did an actual economic analysis, and I realized, uh-oh, the cost of doing business was high, because the cost of the materials was so amazingly high, and the cost of energy was relatively low.”

Scoring a gig with Solar States is a pretty big get: All employees are full-time, and the starting wage is $13.50 an hour, with the opportunity to move up in the company quickly.

The prospects for the business became far better after President Obama was first elected, and instituted an industry-redefining policy: Those seeking to install solar energy systems in their homes would receive a 30 percent cash grant to help with the work. It was a godsend, and Gold-Markel immediately set to work learning the practical aspects of the trade.

After roughly a year of studying and living on his saving from his software career, Gold-Markel offered to teach classes on solar energy and panel installation at Science Leadership Academy in Center City, to get a  better sense of what training young people to work in solar installation would be like. But he felt he wasn’t reaching the folks he wanted to reach; after all, the students at SLA are college bound, and Gold-Markel was looking for vocational recruits.

After a stint teaching at the Sustainability Workshop at the Navy Yard, Gold-Markel turned to YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School, which gives former high school dropouts basic reading and math education and trains them in vocations. Gold-Markel, after a year and a half of volunteer teaching at Youthbuild, began to hire students from the program to help him with Solar States’ first big mission: installing the third-largest solar array in Philadelphia at the Crane Arts Building. It wasn’t easy. Gold-Markel’s personal installation experience was limited to setting up his friends’ and parents’ homes with solar on a much smaller scale. And as much time as Gold-Markel had spent trying to recruit vocational trainees, he realized he didn’t have the assets to help them settle into their new occupations.

“The students didn’t have a lot of experience showing up every day, on time, at a job,” says Gold-Markel. “They needed a lot more support than I was originally able to give. Their phones were always getting turned off, so you couldn’t reach them. They were very transient; they had to move often, whether they were getting kicked out of home or kicked out of an apartment.”

Regardless, Solar States successfully completed the installation of the Solar Array at Crane and Gold-Markel began to build out his company, vowing to be more mindful of the needs of his employees. When he was able, Gold-Markel began to provide his employees with cell phones; he says that the difference in their availability and punctuality afterwards, was like “night and day.” He began to advise his employees on how and where to find housing, and offered the one-on-one counseling many of them needed.

His commitment to training young Philadelphians for future-oriented jobs is peerless, says Marty Molloy, the Director of Vocational Training at YouthBuild, from which Solar States still gets its trainees.

“I knew nothing about solar power. I mean, I knew nothing,” says Gold-Markel. “It’s embarrassing. In fact, I have no idea why I was so confident that this could work.”

“From a mission standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, and also from a community standpoint, we don’t have a partner like Solar States and Micah,” says Molloy. “He really has this double mission of wanting to be a green evangelist, of wanting to bring solar to Philadelphia and the surrounding areas, but also really continually caring for our young people.”

Gold-Markel acknowledges that Solar States’ manner of doing business isn’t the easiest. Some of his trainees are far from fully grown; even now, some can’t acclimate to the rigors of an intensive, full-time gig. “A lot of these people,” he says, “they’ve just never had mentors.” And Gold-Markel can’t hire every trainee that Solar States takes in, just the cream of the crop. That said, scoring a gig with Solar States is a pretty big get: All employees are full-time, and the starting wage is $13.50 an hour, with the opportunity to move up in the company quickly. So far, says Gold-Markel, between 150 and 200 people have taken classes or trained with Solar States.

Katrell Holmes, an installer who began working for Gold-Markel as a junior installer, has worked with Gold-Markel for three years, having joined the business through Powercorps PHL, an Americorps-sponsored program that helps young Philadelphians reenter the workforce. He sees Gold-Markel as a friend and mentor, and says that he was an excellent teacher; Holmes says that with Gold-Markel’s guidance he understood the nuances of solar energy installation within a month, and that he can now see a real future for himself in green energy.

“I tell everyone that solar is life,” says Holmes. “It’s a hands-on thing. If I sit behind a desk, I’ll fall asleep. And, basically, it’s like saving the planet. Every installation I do, I feel good about what I’ve just done, you know?”

Header Photo: Solar States

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