Bay Area solar installer treks from rooftop to the red carpet
SAN JOSE — Eddie Wiltz set out to learn a trade at a Richmond job training class in 2009. Six years later, he was posing for pictures on a red carpet at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
In between, Wiltz, 25, landed a job as a solar panel installer and crew leader at Clean Solar in San Jose. The transformation is captured in the new documentary, “Catching the Sun,” a story of growing and promoting the solar industry, with a little romance mixed in. Directed by Shalini Kantayya, the film follows several people in the Bay Area, including environmental activist and Obama appointee Van Jones, for several years. It began playing in select theaters around the country this month.
Wiltz entered the Richmond training program as a 19-year-old, part-time community college student looking for a trade to start his career. He didn’t know anything about green energy and he was leery of a construction job.
“I didn’t have any exact plan,” Wiltz said. “At the time I was young. I wanted to work.”
He sat down with this newspaper to talk about his training and role in the documentary. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q How did you find the training program?
A I found RichmondBUILD and Solar Richmond through my mom. She was working for the city at the time. She just knew of the program.
She thought it was training to work at the Port of Richmond.
When I walked in, I was thinking that I was going there to work on the docks. When I get in there, I see a big old sign that says, “Green energy training.” I’m like, “What the hell is that?” It was all brand new.
Q What did they teach you?
A We went through nine weeks of carpentry. We built a little one-bedroom model house from the subfloor up. Then we went through three weeks of energy-efficiency training and then three weeks of solar training. Within that time, we learned a little bit about each trade.
Not only did they give you training, but then they help you with job placement and find you jobs all around. It just opened up some doors that you really didn’t know were there.
The money opportunity was there, as well. I was 19. Starting at over $20 an hour, it sounded great.
Q Tell me about the film. When did the documentary filmmaker show up for class? What happened?
A They showed up the last three weeks of class, because that was the solar portion of it. We really didn’t know what was going on. They came, they were filming the class when we were just doing our regular stuff. They asked if they could interview certain people throughout the class. I was asked, or chosen or whatever it was. I said, sure, I’ll say a few things on camera. From then on, it really just picked up.
Q What was it like being filmed?
A It was weird. It was new. I’m not an actor. I’m not in front of a camera or anything. To have a camera in your face and be the whole center of everything — it was all new to me. It was a long process, though. It started in 2009. Then in 2010, 2012, 2013.
After a while you kind of get used to it.
Q What does it take to be a good installer?
A Work ethic and a little bit of smarts.
Not complaining. There’s going to be a lot of hard days. A lot of hot days, hard days, heavy lifting. If you have a work ethic and you just put your head down and go, then you’ll be OK. And you’re willing to learn.
Q What’s it like up on a roof in July and August?
A Like hell on earth. Hot. You can’t touch anything. You have to be well hydrated or else you’ll really get into some trouble up there. Those hot days are just completely miserable. I think the entire solar industry — installers, anyway — dreads the summer. We see it coming. It’s getting there right now.
Your feet are burning through your shoes. You can’t touch anything without gloves on. It might burn through the gloves. On the hottest days, you’ll be drenched in a sweat at 9 o’clock up there. If it’s 100 down here, it’s probably 115 or 120 up there.
You’ve just got to work through it.
Q What was the movie premiere like?
A The premiere was great. Going down to L.A. was a fun time. Thanks to Clean Solar, I was able to go and hang out with (company co-founder) Jeff Ritchey for a little bit.
It was like a “wow” moment. You get there, and it’s a movie premiere with you. They had a backdrop for pictures and a red carpet and a couple of the other people from the movie. We’re just the whole center of attention We’re taking pictures. It’s a little overwhelming. I’m not used to it. But it’s like, OK. Alright.
Watching the movie for the first time — it’s a great film. It all comes together. The director, Shalini, she was working hard for years and year. This is her dream. To see it all come true for her, after years and years in the making, was a great thing.
Before, I really wasn’t too concerned about going to the movie premiere. Now, I’m glad I was there.
Q What did you think of seeing yourself on the screen?
A I wish I had a haircut. They always caught me on a bad week.
It’s weird seeing yourself on the big screen. But then, at the same time, you kind of like it too.
Q What did you think of seeing Tierra, your future girlfriend, in the film?
A We met in the program. We didn’t know each other before the program. It was weird, just like seeing myself. The movie had everything — it had a struggle, it had a success and then me and Tierra were the love story. Watching us as the love story, that was a weird feeling.
Contact Louis Hansen (408) 920-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/HansenLouis.
FIVE THINGS ABOUT EDDIE WILTZ
1. He coaches a youth AAU basketball team, East Bay Swag.
2. He took journalism and African-American history classes at junior college. He wanted to become a sports talk show host.
3. His father, Edward Wiltz, died of cancer when he was 13. His father’s best advice: “Life is not a joke. It can all be over in a second.”
4. He’s a huge sports fan, and his favorite teams are the Warriors, 49ers and Giants.
5. His grandmother, Osceola Washington, was a community and civil rights leader in Hunters Point. A neighborhood street is named after her, and Wiltz has her name tattooed on his arm.
Birthplace: San Francisco
Education: Pinole Valley High School, some junior college courses
Previous jobs: Temporary positions at a food manufacturing plant and the Moscone Center. Clean Solar, installer and part-time foreman
Family: Mother, Juanita Washington; girlfriend, Tierra Andrews, and their infant daughter, Ayla.