Todd Rutherford (copy)

S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said the level of diversity in the state's solar workforce is "abysmal" during a Legislative Black Caucus meeting on March 26, 2019. File/Andrew Brown/Staff

COLUMBIA — Black lawmakers in the S.C. House expressed grave concern with the level of diversity in the state's growing solar workforce Tuesday, telling an industry supporter that "the Klan probably hired more black people than you all do."

Data compiled by the nonprofit Solar Foundation found that 8.6 percent of South Carolina's solar workers in 2018 were African-American, just above the national average of 7.6 percent. By contrast, 27 percent of South Carolina's population is black, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, called the figures "embarrassing" during a Tuesday meeting of the Legislative Black Caucus, demanding that solar advocates not come back until they can show substantial improvements.

"It looks to me as if we are supporting an industry that is doing all it can to keep out African-Americans," said Rutherford, who added that he has installed solar panels at his home. "The Klan probably hired more black people than you all do."

The criticism comes at a crucial time for the industry as it is seeking continued legislative support for a bill that advocates say is needed to expand the industry in South Carolina. The House unanimously approved legislation to that effect last month, but it has slowed down in the Senate due to disputes about the length of large-scale solar farm contracts.

Rutherford's comments came during a presentation by John Tynan, executive director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, which has supported the solar industry in the state. Solar company officials were unable to attend because of spring break and other commitments, Tynan said.

"I think the solar industry recognizes — and every person in the industry I've spoken to has said — we have a long way to go and this does not reflect the values of the industry and what they strive to achieve," Tynan said.

Overall, South Carolina added 154 new solar jobs in 2018, the Solar Foundation found, bringing the total to 2,983 in the state, which ranks 25th nationwide. 

The percentage of solar employees in the state who are black has increased from 6.7 percent in 2017, an improvement that Tynan said offers some consolation.

"At the very least the 2018 numbers are headed in an upward direction, which is good," Tynan said. "But I agree it's still not where I'm sure you all would like that number to be, nor where we would hope it to be."

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Abigail Ross Hopper, the president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, took issue with Rutherford's remarks and said they are actively working towards improving diversity in the national solar workforce.

She said the trade group has published a "Diversity Best Practices Guide," urged member companies to sign a diversity pledge — 20 already have and they are aiming for 100 by the end of April — and is working with historically black colleges and the NAACP to "create pathways to improve industry diversity."

"We are taking important steps to improve diversity and inclusion in our industry, and we are committed to making sure our workforce looks like the rest of America," Ross Hopper said.

Black Caucus chairman Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, told Tynan he hopes they can continue to have further discussions about the issue in the future.

"Diversity is very important," Govan said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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