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Community colleges teach workers in Virginia to install solar panels

Ben Margot/AP
Gen Nashimoto, of Luminalt, installs solar panels in Hayward, Calif., on April 29.

This story was reported and written by Radio IQ

The solar industry is starting to ramp up in parts of Virginia, and there’s a growing demand for trained workers. At least eight colleges throughout the Commonwealth offer training for people wanting to learn how to install solar panels.

Inside a classroom at New River Community College, six students sit at desks and take notes. Their professor, Keith McAllister, shows them the instructions for the solar panel array they’re about to assemble outside.

“So we’re gonna measure voltage,” McAllister said. “The higher the voltage the more pressure there is to drive electrons through a circuit.”

In addition to learning skills for solar jobs, some of the students in this class say they want to learn how to install solar on their own home or land.

“If we can save money, that’s good,” said Bridget Meneghini. She and her husband already have solar panels on their garage and want to install more. They’ve seen a cost savings on their electric bill, and are even considering going off grid.

Meneghini said they may choose to hire another contractor to do the work, but this class is helping them think through what they need to complete their project.

Meneghini also works at this college and advises electrical students. “I think if you’re currently enrolled in an electrical program, it’s a good addition,” Meneghini said.

This two-day class is part of Virginia’s FastForward workforce program, which offers financial aid to cover a lot of the tuition.

It’s specifically designed to teach students to install utility-scale solar projects. Most of these larger projects are in central and southside Virginia, where land is more flat. But there are at least two here in the New River Valley that are expected to come online in the coming years. All of them will need workers.

Companies that install solar on homes are growing too.

“You know we started with two people and a truck and now we’re 17 people and 10 trucks,” said Patrick Feucht co-owner of Baseline Solar Solutions, which has been installing solar in the New River Valley for 16 years. On a recent morning, workers were packing trucks with solar panels and tools, gearing up for job sites. Many of these workers were trained by the company.

“I’d say that there are not an abundance of people who already have the skills who come to us,” Feucht said. They’ve hired people who have gone through the solar training program at New River community college. His company has collaborated with the school, so the students can watch them install solar on homes.

“We’re interested in getting a lot of renewable energy out into the world,” Meneghini said. “That’s gonna take a lot of people, and we want to help train those people.”

These jobs do require physical labor, but for those wanting to get away from deskwork and learn a trade, Feucht said this industry needs workers.

“People who are knowledgeable at construction. Electrical knowledge is a big plus,” Feucht said.

Pay for entry level solar technicians varies widely, depending on the area and the company. These workers earn, on average, $22 an hour in Virginia, said David Peterson, executive director of a group working to train up this workforce. He said because there are government incentives to drive up solar production, he expects to see wages grow in the coming years.

“There’s a tremendous amount of growth that’s gonna take place, and a tremendous amount of upward mobility for those who enter the industry at this point,” Peterson said.

He said he often sees workers in this industry work up to higher paid positions, faster than in other trades.

New River Community College is offering its next solar technician course June 21-22, and other classes are scheduled in September and October. Seven other colleges across Virginia offer this training program too.

Roxy Todd

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