JACKSONVILLE — A wave of alternative energy will eventually hit the United States, and coastal North Carolina would seem one good place for it to break, with generous amounts of sunshine to power solar panels and enough wind, especially offshore, to keep turbine blades spinning most days.
But when that wave does come, will there be technicians and managers trained to install, operate and maintain the solar panels, wind farms and other types of green energy systems?
The answer, from a survey of community colleges along the coast, appears to be yes. A variety of programs are in place – offering both two-year associate’s degrees and more rapidly obtainable certificates – and some colleges are already producing graduates who are working in the field. But the programs are relatively new, some of the classes aren’t filling up and they aren’t offered everywhere. For example, there’s nothing offered right now at Carteret Community College in Morehead City or at Craven Community College in New Bern.
And, some in the education field conceded, there are still some significant obstacles to job growth, both practical and philosophical.
For example, Steve Forney, director of the skills and training section in the continuing education department at Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, said recently that he’s been somewhat disappointed in the numbers of students who have signed up for classes in weatherization and home energy reduction, introduction to renewable energy and one on “green building,” which teaches students to “develop skills to produce and utilize renewable energy sources” and discuss future infrastructure from a local perspective.
“There is interest, and we have students, but it has not been quite what I’d like,” he said. “But these are fairly new courses, and it takes time. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to keep offering them.”
Forney is a believer in alternative energy – an ex-Marine, he’s seen the technology used – and he annually attends conferences and training to stay in tune with th e latest advances. He feels the school’s solar technology training is excellent. He has great equipment, including panels and a converter, and said he’s been trying, unsuccessfully, for some time to get a wind turbine in his budget. But, he said, with a downturn in the housing market, power companies have not been quick enough to create the infrastructure to make if feasible for homeowners and home builders to use new energy technology.
Most of the homes in the a area, he said, are still not built for solar energy use, and the power companies “have not yet made it easy enough for individual homeowners or businesses” who want to retrofit or build new solar-capable structures to tie into the electrical power grid with meters that will put electricity into the grid and give owners a credit when panels produce an excess. The result, according to Forney, is that most who use solar panels to produce electricity have to use bulky and expensive batteries to store any excess energy produced. It’s also still difficult and complicated to convert the energy for household use.
Finally, he said, “solar panels are great, but there are studies out there that indicate they often need to be replaced about the time they break even on the investment.”
All of those things dampen demand for products, and without high demand, some of the potential for jobs is muted, so the demand for the training is dampened, too.
But farther south, at Brunswick Community College in Bolivia, a similar, relatively new but very specific program is humming along nicely.
According to Marilyn Graham, Green Information and Training Center coordinator, the school’s solar installer course uses a rigorous curriculum that is turning out ready-to-work employees. Some have found jobs already, she said.
Brunswick, in partnership with Cape Fear Solar Systems LLC, a local leader in solar system design and installation, this summer completed the second semester of solar installer classes. Of the eight of the 12 students last semester signed up to take the exam to be certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners; five passed.
But the Brunswick course, Graham said, prepares the students well and qualifies them to get those entry level jobs, which can be stepping stones to bigger and better things.“It’s a very difficult test,” she said. “One person who took it, who was already an electrician/contractor, said it was about as difficult as the exam to become an inspector.”
The current class has eight students, Graham said, and it’s obvious to her there is continuing interest.
“We’re very excited about this,” she said. “It is a new program, but I think it’s clear that we are giving the students who take it a competitive advantage (in the job market). That’s what it’s all about: Providing the training so people in our area can go out and get jobs.”
In addition to classroom work, students train on a “mock” roof on the college campus, where they install, re-install and troubleshoot various solar systems. They also go on field trips to solar systems installed by Cape Fear Solar.
John Donoghue, president of Cape Fear Solar Systems, is the instructor. The company offers a wide range of solar panels for solar thermal (solar water heating), photovoltaic (solar electric) and solar pool heating systems.
“I’m pleased to see young professionals taking solar power seriously and obtaining education and training to become qualified within this growing field,” he said recently. “The NABCEP entry level exam should be the starting point for every installer having long term professional objectives in the solar industry with the aim of providing quality workmanship.”
Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington is aiming higher. The school offers the expected certificate courses, such as one that enables students to become a solar installer quickly, but it’s betting bigger, offering a “Sustainable Technologies Program” that awards students an associate’s degree in applied technology.
Lead instructor John Wojciechowski said the three-year-old program has had one graduating class and currently has about 25 to 35 students enrolled either full- or part-time in “green” programs, either seeking the associate’s degree or certificates.
The degree curriculum is designed to prepare individuals for jobs in environmental, construction, alternative energy, manufacturing or related industries in which emphasis is placed on energy production and waste reduction along with sustainable technologies.
Course work includes alternative energy, environmental engineering technology, sustainable manufacturing and green building technology. Additional topics may include sustainability, energy management, waste reduction, renewable energy, site assessment and environmental responsibility. The school has its own alternative energy lab.
Some graduates are working for solar firms, a couple are in jobs related to energy efficiency or building energy audits and some are in construction-related jobs, such as Energy Star compliance.
Students are primarily from the New Hanover-Pender County area, but some are out of state, as far away as Massachusetts, Wojciechowski said. He is optimistic about the future of the program and the job market.
“Barring the complete breakdown of tax credits (for alternative energy), which I don’t foresee – I think they will be gradually phased out – I think the future is good,” he said. “Alternative energy costs are coming down, and I don’t see that stopping.”
It is possible, Wojciechowski said, that programs could produce too many students with degrees or certificates for the local or regional market right now, but as in most fields in the current economy, graduates who are willing to move to another area should have a good shot at a job. That’s especially true, he said, if the graduates have the flexibility gained from training in the “sustainability” program, which does not restrict them to one particular job, as a certificate might.
“I really think there are jobs out there now, in our area, for anyone who wants to be a solar ‘jockey,’ to climb up on roofs and install systems,” he said. “And there are green jobs elsewhere in the state, and in Georgia and South Carolina.”
Wojciechowski noted that there are similar sustainable technology degree programs at Lenoir Community College in Kinston and Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. He doesn’t mind that those are relatively nearby, and said it helps students who may move for family reasons or may be taking the courses while working and are transferred. One of his students, he said, needed one more class to earn his degree at Central Carolina, but it was not offered when he could take it, so he took it and passed it in Wilmington.
“That works for me,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about community colleges and the community college system. And it’s good, low-cost education.”