Realizing the Economic Benefits of Solar: The Virginia Solar Workforce Initiative

by Francis Hodsoll and Jon Hillis

Solar is Growing in the US

More and more companies have made the commitment to purchase renewable energy as part of their sustainable business strategies. Large enterprises such as Microsoft, Kohl’s, Apple, The North Face are powered by solar, while Google, Marriott, McDonald’s and a majority of the Fortune 100 consider access to renewable energy as part of their investment decisions. Numerous companies have established their operations in locations where they can access solar power.

What does this mean for Virginia?

Virginia and its citizens are well-positioned to leverage the employment, community development, and broader economic benefits of utility-scale solar market growth. In fact, the rapid developments in the solar industry in Virginia are expected to be further spurred by recent legislation signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam. Bill 966 encourages the growth of renewable energy in the Commonwealth and initiates a process to modernize the state’s power grid to ease the  adoption of renewables. The solar industry may deploy as much as 500 MWs of solar per year over the next five years[1]. For the Commonwealth, this could mean the creation of tens of thousands of jobs, tax and other economic benefits to communities, and enough clean energy to power more than 400,000 homes.

The Need for Labor

However, one obstacle stands in the way.

Because Virginia has historically lagged behind neighboring states in provisioning skilled labor for the industry, many of the early solar jobs have been offered to out-of-state workers. These projects require entry-level construction workers, a job where turnover is as high as 40% and there is no defined career path.

Addressing the Need: Virginia Solar Workforce Initiative

Several stakeholders—Southside Virginia Community College, leading solar and construction businesses[2], and Virginia’s solar energy association (MDV-SEIA) came together to form the Virginia Solar Workforce Initiative. The main focus of this team is to develop a program that offers training for utility solar jobs and an industry-certified credential, which will be recognized by regional businesses and the broader industry. This public/private partnership will help prepare Virginia workers to reap the benefits of the market growth in solar implementations—both in skill development and career planning.

How It Works

During the 2018 spring and summer months, the partners in the Workforce Initiative will develop a 40- to 60-hour pilot training program at Southside Virginia Community College (SVCC) that will launch in August. The pilot program is modeled on SVCC’s successful Power Line Worker Certificate Program and will train approximately 50 workers to enter the solar utility installation field. The plan is to grow the program at SVCC, and to later replicate the program in other Southside and Southwest markets. Labor demand and program results could lead the partnership to scale up across the Commonwealth of Virginia.

We Have Already Started!

The Founding Partners have provided initial seed funding of $25,000 to kickstart Phase I of the program and the Virginia Tobacco Commission approved a $50,000 grant application for programmatic support. In addition, the Founding Partners are raising additional funds of $300,000 to $500,000 from multiple sources in partnership with SVCC (and the Virginia Community College System). This funding includes: cash and in-kind support from industry; regional funds for economic revitalization; statewide funds that target workforce development; and other sources to leverage the private sector support already achieved.

Recruiting of instructors and the first cohort of students for the Pilot Program is expected to start in July with the first classes commencing in August. Once classes have concluded in November, the team will analyze and report on results and prepare for the 2019 program, scaling as appropriate.

Check back here for updates on the program and to learn how to get involved!

[1] Dominion Energy’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) – a utilities long-term plan to deploy and manage grid resources to meet the projected demand – predicts 480 MWs of solar per year. Dominion’s IRP does not include bi-lateral contracts between a solar customer and a non-Dominion owner of solar generation.
[2] Cypress Creek Renewables, Faulconer Construction, SolUnesco, Strata Solar, and Sun Tribe Solar
By |2018-06-06T11:51:40+00:00June 6th, 2018|Construction, Industry, News, Southeast, Virginia Solar|

One Comment

  1. Brian W. August 18, 2018 at 4:37 pm - Reply

    I agree that turnover will be an impediment to developing a stable solar installation industry for Virginia. While the image of an array in a rural setting paints a scene of peaceful calm, the reality is that installation requires significant physical stamina. With many people entering solar without prior construction experience, the added demand of rigorous labor can lead to rapid burnout.

    I’d compare pitched residential installation to roofing and ground-mount is similar to setting utility pilings. With modules weighing ~40 lbs each, a few 25′ extension ladders, broiling summer rooftop temperatures, and gravity fighting you all the way, it’s a real workout! A well-formed training program, along with quality hoisting and safety equipment can make a worker’s transition into solar less frustrating and more rewarding.

    I’ll look forward to the pilot program’s follow-up report. Thanks for posting!

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