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Federal action expected to boost solar education

May. 27, 2014 - 03:29PM   |  
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DENVER — Hundreds of students intent on finding work in the solar energy industry have graduated from four-month and two-year programs at Red Rocks Community College since 2008.

But finding a permanent job today in the rapidly changing, competitive industry that is heavily influenced by public policy, may require grads to start their own businesses or even look for jobs in other energy businesses.

“There is a demand for installers right now, but there is a lot of apprehension by companies to hire people so they are looking for temporary help,” said Troy Wanek, who leads Red Rocks’ renewable energy technology department. “The outlook for the industry itself is unpredictable, so a longer-vision plan for the industry itself would be helpful for businesses.”

Red Rocks is one of the U.S. community colleges that President Obama said will aid in training 50,000 solar-industry workers by 2020 as part of the White House’s commitment to create jobs and cut air pollution by encouraging solar development and energy efficiency.

The U.S. Department of Energy will build on its Solar Instructor Training Network, headed in the Rocky Mountain region by Elias Bishop, to train the new workers.

Bishop said that Colorado has one of the strongest solar job markets in the nation, with about 3,600 people employed, according to the 2013 National Solar Jobs Census.

Courses are taught at at least four Colorado community colleges.

“Some just offer quite basic introductory classes,” Bishop said. “Others have built quite robust solar programs and integrated them into existing electrical programs or energy-management programs.”

Clark Mozer, who directs the Electro-Mechanical and Energy Technology Program at Front Range Community College’s Fort Collins campus, said the program offers a “tool box of electrical and mechanical skills.”

“Graduates have found jobs manufacturing solar panels and are also prepared to work as installers,” Mozer said. “A new laboratory just built at the Larimer campus provides students the opportunity to assemble, commission, operate and decommission a 2 kilowatt grid-tied solar array, utilizing two different inverter technologies. This offers the students a hands-on opportunity to work with the same equipment they would encounter in the solar industry.”

He said the program has graduated about 50 students in the past two years.

Wanek said students at Red Rocks also get education about how to start a solar business. He said about 75 percent of installation companies have four or fewer employees.

The rest are no larger than 30 or 40 employees, he said.

Rebecca Cantwell, executive director of the Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association, said that while education is important, having a stable solar marketplace will ensure there are jobs for graduates in the long-term.

For example, she said, the extension recently of Xcel Energy’s Solar Rewards program, which offers incentives for home and small-business solar arrays, will allow the installation of small systems to continue and the commercial market, shut down since October, to restart.

“The stop and start is the hardest part of creating a stable marketplace,” she said.

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