Training the Workforce for Renewable Energy

It seems that every day, another college introduces solar panels to campus or finds new ways to conserve energy. As administrators turn away from each glistening new turbine, rubbing their palms in glee, the realization sinks in:  now what?

“Some community colleges are integrating renewable energy technology into their facilities on a case by case basis, but it’s the training of workers that will end up making a bigger difference,” says Jay Antle, Sustainability Committee Chair at Johnson County Community College. “Community colleges will do the bulk of that training.”

Programs designed to address workforce education and training, like the wind generation program at Cloud Community College in Kansas, cannot turn out enough qualified workers to meet demand, says Antle. “I can safely say that tens of thousands of workers will be needed in wind technology and support fields, and that’s just to cover the western United States.”

While estimates vary widely, no organization has yet suggested that the US will be able to function in a new energy economy with less than several million workers trained to manage wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and other forms of energy, and connect those sources to electricity grids, mass transit, construction, and other services. A recent UN report claimed that with projected investments in renewable energy, as many as 20 million jobs could be created before 2030.

Until recently, community college-based programs have been funded piecemeal, by a combination of partnerships with local utilities and grants through federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation or the Department of Labor. Most of these grants are traditional in nature, such as a community-based grant for job creation, but recently, they are often awarded to schools that apply with a sustainability focus.

Congress has also been paying more attention to workforce education and training. In December 2007, Congress passed the Green Jobs Act as part of the comprehensive energy bill. This legislation promotes worker education and training for renewable energy and energy efficiency through partnerships that may include community colleges. While the program has not yet been funded, a coalition that includes the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and the Center for American Progress, is advocating for funding in the economic stimulus bill to be considered early next year.

Another bill, the Higher Education Sustainability Act, was signed into law in August 2008. This bill provides funding for sustainability programs on college campuses and sustainability education and research at institutions of higher learning. However, it does not single out community colleges for special emphasis, leaving a gap between the research traditionally done at universities and the on-the-ground expertise that will be needed.

“Community colleges fill a very different role than the other higher education institutions. The real difference is that the research institutions are inventing and perfecting the technology that community college-trained workers will install and service,” says Antle.

In part to address this difference, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) introduced the Community College Sustainability Act in June 2008 to promote education and training for sustainability more broadly, including alternative energy, green construction, recycling, sustainable agriculture and even sustainable culinary practices. The status of the bill is uncertain, though advocates are hopeful that this or another bill supporting community colleges will soon fund similar workforce initiatives.

“If these programs are going to make it, it will first require leadership in institutions that are willing to prioritize renewable energy training. Two, it’s going to require federal funding or something like it. President-elect Obama has preliminary language for a stimulus package already, but it’s hard to say what that will look like,” says Antle. “Within the next 4 or 5 months, it will be a different landscape when a community college is looking for money to finance these training programs.”



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Published: December 9, 2008