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Solar Thrives in Sunny Maine: A Conversation with Dana Doran, Kennebec Valley Community College

Dana Doran, Director of Energy Programs at Kennebec Valley Community College (ME), found his way to KVCC in 2007 to head up fundraising efforts for the college. A former high school history teacher and basketball coach, Dana felt KVCC was a good fit for his interest in energy and education.

His fundraising skills came in handy; a proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy for KVCC to offer solar training was successful, and by 2009, KVCC was a northeast regional training provider for solar training.  Dana has been a strong, successful voice for solar at KVCC ever since.  Solar in Maine, you ask? It’s not as much of a stretch as you may think.  Always gracious, Dana made time to talk about KVCC’s solar activities in Maine.

IREC:  It was an auspicious move from being a high school history teacher to leading the solar charge at KVCC.  Did you expect DOE to award two regional training providers in the northeast?

DD:  Back in 2009, KVCC applied to be a Regional Training Provider to do both PV & solar thermal like the other RTPs.  DOE thought it was a good idea to split the northeast region into two—one for solar PV (HVCC), and one for solar thermal—KVCC–a solar two-fer for the northeast region.

IREC:  Sounds like those fundraising skills came in handy.  You spent a couple of years building out a strong solar thermal reputation and facility. 

DD:  Yes we did.  We built and equipped a first-class solar thermal lab to support our solar heating and cooling hands-on installation training—our 40-hour course for solar thermal instructors from seven states in the Northeast region.  In all, we trained 60 instructors from community colleges, career and technical education centers, and apprenticeship programs.

IREC:  We know what happened: solar thermal wasn’t feeling the love at the federal level. The star of the show was PV, nationally and worldwide.  It was all PV, all the time.  What did that mean to KVCC?

DD:  We had a couple of options. We could take what we had built and move on, or we could collaborate with other partners, IREC and DOE, use our existing resources and the institutional knowledge to augment what was happening with solar PV regionally.  We began to think about reinventing ourselves and come into the PV family.

IREC:  Things happen for a reason, they say.  So what looked like an unhappy ending has turned out rather well. 

DD:  DOE made a good decision to add more solar capacity in the Northeast. There are plenty of opportunities here in the region that DOE felt it warranted having a second solar provider.  We looked at HVCC’s model – they partner with some 22 institutions, but that leaves a lot of institutions out there that could use some help.

IREC: KVCC already had a good set up in place for solar heating and cooling.  How did you convert that infrastructure into solar PV?

DD:  We did have a great infrastructure in place—that’s absolutely correct.  We had rooftops, classrooms, storage facilities, mock training areas—all perfectly suitable for solar PV.  We did need to buy some PV-specific equipment—panels, inverters, and DOE wanted us to have a larger mobile training presence. But we didn’t have to build a new facility.  Last summer was spent in program development, creating curriculum, visiting with our fellow RTPs, remodeling the website, creating new marketing materials to get ready for our solar PV program.  We announced the program in January, and started advertising for instructors.

IREC:  That’s a lot of activity in just six months.  Congratulations.  Where are things today?

DD:  March 1st was the deadline for instructor applications and partnering institutions and we’ve received over thirty applications.  We’re reviewing the applications –we’re on a tight deadline because we’re planning to launch our first online course on April 15th.

IREC:  Will you be reaching out to the same training organizations you worked with before, or will you be reaching out to new ones?

DD: There could be some of the same ones from our earlier program but certainly there will plenty of new organizations.  We’re looking for partner institutions to be ones that already have existing training programs in three major curriculum areas: electrical technologies; building construction; engineering and architecture.  We’ve also opened it up to technical high schools, community colleges, baccalaureate institutions and trade/apprenticeship organizations with existing programs in one or more of those three areas.  In many respects, we’re replicating what we did with our solar heating and cooling program— focusing on existing programs and institutions.

IREC:  How will you keep from bumping into HVCC, not duplicate what they’re doing?

DD:  We’re certainly collaborating with HVCC- being mindful of its 22-23 partnering institutions.  But if any of those training organizations have programs that aren’t currently served by HVCC and are interested in being part of the network, we and DOE feel the market is big enough in this region to add value above  and beyond who HVCC is working with.  The big PV market states: New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, states with lots of potential partnering institutions still have unmet capacity and we feel that this program will help in the long run.

IREC:  So your first class will be an online offering.  But what about the hands-on piece? You’ve got this great new PV lab.  Will instructors come to KVCC for hands-0n?

DD:  Yes to both.  Most of the work will be online and in other geolocations closer to where folks are.  We will offer some summer training in Maine.

IREC: Summer in Maine.  I’ll be there.  Do you have any idea how many partnering institutions you’ll accommodate?  How many applied?

DD:   Over 30 institutions applied to the program and we should have a really good idea by the beginning of April as to who will be part of this program.

IREC:   I suspect there’s been a lot of interest.  Were people aware this was in the works?

DD: I don’t think folks were expecting this.  There’s been significant interest, lots of questions. Our goal has been to make this as minimally invasive in terms of cost as possible.  There’s no cost for someone to take any of these classes.  We’re even able to offer a small travel stipend. If people can receive this holistic training for free, it’s got great value.

IREC: Let’s talk about the online curriculum:  how will the students interact with the instructor? Is it just ‘me and my laptop?’  Isn’t that a little disconnected, impersonal?

DD:  Yes, it’s just you and your laptop, but the instructor will deliver the course module through an online content management system that will be accessible 24/7 via PowerPoint presentations with voice layover. Video links for safety and other topics will help keep the learning interactive. The course has been organized to be conducive to many different learning styles so diversity is of the essence.  While we’ve developed the entire program, and have course outlines for all courses, our first solar online PV course launched April 15th.  The rest of the courses in the program will be developed and will roll out over the next 18 months.

IREC: What sort of instructor will be interested in this?

DD:  Typically, faculty who are already teaching in existing programs will be interested.  It could be instructors from a high school or community college where they can create or augment an existing electrical technology, engineering or architectural design course based on PV design.  Or they may be trying to refine their knowledge from installation/construction/design. Some may have an electrical technician background, some may have a Ph.D in electrical engineering with limited PV experience. Either way, this training will offer a way for them to enhance their knowledge. Though this will be a non-credit program, instructor trainees will have the opportunity to pursue third party certifications as a result of their participation.

IREC:  So what’s the wish? What’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

DD:  It’s a couple of things:  1)  it’s about creating a well-trained solar PV workforce of installers, designers, engineers—from soup to nuts with a wide range of PV knowledge; and 2) it’s about market development, much like how the National Science Foundation  looks at STEM.  We’re not just training folks for specific occupations; rather, we’re trying to influence a marketplace to encourage all levels of learners to play a transformative role in the deployment of solar PV.

IREC:  So when your fellow Pine Tree Staters say something like, ‘ solar in Maine? Really?’, what’s your comeback?

DD:  That’s easy.  Maine has as much annual solar exposure as Phoenix, AZ.  Maine is also at the same latitude as Frankfurt, Germany.  If Germany can be a world leader in solar, there’s plenty of hope for Maine.

IREC: Touché.  This is really inspiring work, Dana.  Since we’re catching you right at the beginning of the reinvented KVCC solar program, would you be up for a visit in late summer, early fall, to learn how things have been going?  I’m already dreaming of summer in Maine.  Maybe I could sit in on a class?  

DD:  Most definitely.

This article was originally published on IREC and was republished with permission.

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