Knobelsdorff Enterprises pronounces the “K” in the family name, but that’s not the most interesting part of this contractor’s legacy in Minnesota.
In high school, CEO and president Karl von Knobelsdorff was criticized for planning to work in the trades after graduation instead of going to college. But since joining the family business in 2005, von Knobelsdorff has helped the company grow into a full-service solar EPC that also invests time and money into teaching local students about careers in solar energy.
In this episode of the Contractor’s Corner podcast, von Knobelsdorff and senior VP of operations Aaron Pyfferoen talk about KE’s educational program and how the company is navigating the challenging solar terrain — both code-related and earthen — in one of the coldest states in the country.
An edited portion of the interview is below, but be sure to listen to the full podcast for more insight on how the company is handling the module supply shortage and keeping projects moving in the midst of great market uncertainty.
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SPW: What has been the most rewarding moment of your career at KE?
von Knobelsdorff: For me, it’s developing people. That is the single most rewarding part of my job: watching young talent come in, going into the high schools and talking to kids, getting them fired up about the trades.
Tell me more about your experience going into high schools. Do you find that the students already know about solar as a job prospect?
They don’t. I’m a high school graduate; I didn’t go to college. I came right out of school, and I loved to work. I was not a good student; I just had a good work ethic and drive.
I’m pretty passionate about the trades and getting kids involved in the trades, because when I was in school, I was told by my high school guidance counselor that I wouldn’t amount to anything because I wasn’t going to college. I would love to see her and be like, “Yeah, I turned out all right I think.”
We started a program two years ago called “Operation Trades Awareness,” where we wanted to find a way to give back to our local communities that we work in. In our first year, we partnered with seven local school districts. It starts with kindergarten; kindergarteners get a book on construction. We go in and read the book to them, they get to take the book home and then they get a flier that goes home to the parents promoting the trades, getting them thinking early on what the trades look like, what a career path looks like.
Eighth graders, we actually take on a field trip to a solar site and they get to learn all about renewable energy and what goes into the project, from design and procurement to civil and grading work, fencing and pile-driving, the racking, module-setting, DC wiring and commissioning. They see that project from tip to tail of what goes into it.
And then graduating seniors, we give a home starter tool kit and then that same flier. Last year, I think we hired 10 kids right out of talking to those senior classes. It’s been a great program. It’s a lot of fun and we’re looking to expand that both regionally and nationally.
Tell me about the most unique project your company has done.
In Minnesota, we really didn’t have a solar market in 2014. Come 2015 and 2016, community solar legislation brought a lot of contractors to the state that were not licensed in the state and didn’t know how to operate in Minnesota. Some of our most challenging projects were really picking up the pieces after other contractors failed.
There are numerous portfolios of projects in Minnesota where we came in at the end and got to get them past the finish line and built great customer relationships that way. Then the next round, they ended up hiring us or bringing us to other states for them.
What’s different about installing in Minnesota?
Minnesota has some challenging licensing requirements where the state decided that the mechanical racking is electrical work, so you have to perform that under a two-to-one ratio. It’s nothing more than pushing bolts and setting structural steel — it’s not electrical work, we don’t go to an electrical apprenticeship program to learn how to set structural steel.
But Minnesota decided it was electrical work, so you now have to have electricians set structural steel and assemble mechanical racking. It’s not work that electricians usually want to do, so it posed some real challenges to try and have enough labor to be able to do that work under a two-to-one journeyman-to-apprentice ratio.
The second most challenging piece is winter. We had a lot of developers coming into the state who had never worked in the northern climate and didn’t understand that from November generally to March, they’re not ideal conditions. You’re working in frost and snow and frozen ground and doing underground work. It just adds cost.
That is a challenge of educating customers sometimes. We could build through the winter — it’s going to cost you 30% more than you anticipated, but we can do it.