Solar Energy: A Market & Workforce In Flux

The second day of PV America included a roundtable on workforce development. The basic theme, according to SEIA’s Rhone Resch, is that as the industry grows and as solar makes up a larger share of the energy mix, there will be a great need for training programs. Not only training programs for workers, but training programs for the trainers.

JoAnn Milliken, head of DOE’s solar program told me that training the trainers is a high priority. She said that American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds will be used to implement these training programs, which could get a further boost from the Waxman/Markey Bill’s green jobs provisions.

One of the bill’s provisions calls for education institutions to train students to work in the clean energy economy that is emerging. Joe Sarubbi, head of the Training and Education Center for Semiconductor Manufacturing and Alternative and Renewable Technologes (TEC-SMART) at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, sat down with me for an interview and told me that the community college system is particularly well suited to do this training.

TEC-SMART, a stand-alone facility that is in the final stages of construction, will build on the school’s existing technical training programs. It will feature a stand along, LEED Gold Certified building that will house PV, wind turbines, passive solar technologies and geothermal heating systems that students can interact with and learn from. Sarubbi also said that the facility will include a community education center that can be used by grade school students or adults to learn about the benefits of renewable energy technologies.

But just what type of market the freshly trained workers coming out of programs like TEC-SMART will enter into is still a bit up in the air…::continue:: Resch said that as the industry debates its direction and what models will succeed a new suite of business models are evolving from the debate. PPA’s, lease models, plug and play systems, and more traditional models will all thrive in one way or another is different markets, there are a lot of opportunities available.

As Resch intimated new business plans for solar companies are being created every week it seems. Akeena Solar’s CEO Barry Cinnamon said that he thinks there is a future for all models including PPAs and solar leasing arrangements but he also said he sees the distributed generation market coming to the fore.

Cinnamon compared it to the growth of the air conditioning market where an installer comes and installs an expensive system that takes care of all of your cooling needs once it’s there. Solar systems have the same general process and same results he said. Modular, do it yourself systems may play a big role in this. They’re already popping up in places like Home Depot for off grid applications.

The business model debate, and the push to train more workers to be in the green workforce signals a push out of infancy for the U.S. Solar market. As funds flow into the industry from the both the public and private sector it will be interesting to see how many workers and companies take advantage of training programs and see which business plans succeed.

I’ll have video up from the PV America event next week, so check out our video section, not only for these videos, but also videos from Intersolar 2009 and Power-Gen Europe 2009.

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Former Editor at RenewableEnergyWorld.com, now Assistant Counsel at the New York State Department of Public Service, regulating New York's electricity, gas, and telecommunications industries.

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