Solar Business Issues: Solar Power Jobs And The Future

Ecotech Institute grads start cool green careers

I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about the future lately. I’m in good company; our inaugural class of Ecotech Institute students just graduated with associate degrees in programs such as Solar Energy Technology and Wind Energy Technology. These visionaries are not only full of hopes and dreams about the future, they are getting actual job offers from cool places to work like Hawaii, Colorado and Texas.

David Roberts at the environmental, non-profit organization Grist has also been thinking about the future, and asks:

“Why do ‘experts’ always lowball clean-energy projections?” In terms of solar, for example, Roberts relates, “In 1996, the World Bank estimated 0.5 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics in China by 2020, but China reached almost double that mark — 900 megawatts — by 2010.”

I think Roberts is spot-on with his points about dynamic and distributed systems. In his words:

“When it comes to complex, parallel, loosely linked networks, the dynamics are more fluid and nonlinear changes more likely. They’re harder to quantify and predict, so we consistently underestimate them. This is something to keep in mind when pondering what today’s projections are going to look like in 2020.”

Or even in 2050: Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of the original Limits to Growth, recently updated his forecast for the next 40 years and reported that nearly 40% renewable energy is possible by that time. Let us hope this is a low-ball estimate as well! A recent U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report suggests that 80 percent electricity from renewables is feasible by 2050—using only existing technology. In one of the most uplifting books I’ve recently read, Amory Lovins shows in Reinventing Fire how more than 90% renewable energy is not only possible but also practical by 2050.

Going back to Roberts’ dynamic and distributed systems point, I believe that if we hope to achieve near-100% renewable energy by 2050 we must plan to do so in as decentralized a manner as possible. Large, centralized power generation facilities, regardless of their fuel source, have many disadvantages over smaller, distributed systems, including:

•Large-scale transmission infrastructure with accompanying large footprint, maintenance, and environmental issues (ecosystem fragmentation, herbicides, etc.),
•Infrastructure breakdowns due to accidents, increasingly chaotic and extreme weather events, and acts of terrorism,
•Power losses over long distances, and
•The need for transformers to step down the voltage before it can be delivered to local consumers.

Even if all of these issues can be addressed, there is the basic matter of total number of ongoing jobs created. Installing and maintaining solar panels on the roofs of homes and businesses nationwide creates many more permanent jobs than a few concentrated solar mega-plants—and leaves our deserts free for owls and tortoises.

Speaking of jobs and decentralized systems, it seems I can’t visit an eco-oriented web site these days without getting an advertisement for a “Green MBA” program. This leads me to another distribution-related jobs question: Who are these Green MBAs supposed to manage? Who is training the folks who are actually going to be repairing the wind turbines and installing the solar panels on all those roofs? While we’re busy working on the next Ecotech Institute to help answer that question, a few of those Green MBAs might have to roll up their white sleeves and get their hands dirty.

Above, I mentioned the cool jobs companies have offered our first Ecotech Institute graduates. Five of our 41 graduates were hired by a solar company in Hawaii where solar has passed grid parity, that is, solar is now cheaper than fossil fuels. Previously, this company toured our Aurora/Denver campus and was so impressed that they went back and created positions for our students. These new employees will be rotating through four different aspects of solar business: residential, commercial, system design and project management. Solar City hired other graduates and assigned them to an army base to help meet net zero energy goals. Some are even greening the fossil fuel industry by working on soil and drilling fluid recycling.

In a recent blog post Ecotech: It Means Jobs, I talk about the overwhelming response to America’s first dedicated renewable energy technology school. Our current population of almost 500 students represents every state except Maine, South Carolina and Utah. In other words, this job market is so promising that we have hundreds of students crossing state borders to attend an accredited college for environmental training. At first, we thought almost all of our students would come from the Denver Metro area. But we rapidly realized there is interest from across the country and so we now advertise Ecotech Institute nationally.

Let’s not low-ball our future in terms of solar energy jobs and other renewable energy careers. But we need more solar energy classes and solar energy schools to meet this growing demand for clean energy technology with zero fuel cost. As inspiration, here’s another Reinventing Fire quote:

“…You can run a very prosperous U.S. economy, 2.6 times today, in 2050, with no oil, no coal, also no nuclear energy and a third less natural gas. It’s $5 trillion cheaper in net present value than business as usual. The transition requires no new inventions, no acts of Congress, and it’s led by business for profit.” ~Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute

By: Kyle Crider/Manager of Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation
of America