By Jess Aloe
On a gray, chilly spring day, a group of high school students are filing through a training classroom in the Dorchester headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 103.
Sitting in a corner, Daniel Naughton flips a switch. The opaque glass wall separating the room from the hallway goes clear, then white again.
The students are audibly impressed.
Outside, several young people sit in the hallway, waiting for an interview to join the union. If they do, they’ll be given years of education for the price of books, and will become licensed electricians. They’ve already taken a Department of Labor exam, which has weeded out the majority of the applicants.
IBEW 103 has embraced this growth. It’s a fundamental part of the instruction students get, and according to Naughton, it’s an important part of the field. A wind turbine spins outside the headquarters, visible from the expressway. Solar panels line the roof, and stretch out behind the building. On a sunny day, they can provide over 100 percent of the power the building needs.
Inside the classroom, live statistics show the status of the solar field.
“I had none of this,” he said. He’s planning on expanding the field too–including installing panels that move to follow the sun, almost like sunflowers.
Most of the state’s growth in renewable energy comes from solar power. In 2013, then-Gov. Deval Patrick set a goal for the state to hit 1600 megawatts of solar installed by 2020. Currently, the state has about 750.
Financial incentives have been behind the solar boom. While the initial costs of solar panels are high, a solar rig can start paying for itself–not only do owners not pay for electricity, they can sell back the electricity they don’t use, generating an income.
This concept–called net metering–has been capped, largely due to pressure from utility companies. The state has created a net metering task force, to study the issue. Two of the seats on the force are represented by utility companies.
Advocates like Ben Hellerstein of Environment Massachusetts said Massachusetts has much more potential for solar growth. His group is pushing for 20 percent of the state’s energy to come from the sun by 2025.
“Utilities want to look at the costs, and not the benefits,” he said.
Representatives from the utility companies argue that they don’t want to increase subsidies to the point where electric ratepayers are subsidizing solar power for others. Utility companies nationwide are scrambling to keep up with a boom in solar power. As the price of solar panels and solar installations goes down, and as batteries evolve, solar systems are becoming increasingly attractive to homeowners.
The Massachusetts State Legislature will likely tackle the issue of net metering capping in the near future. Gov. Charlie Baker’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Matt Beaton, affirmed Baker’s commitment to Patrick’s 1600 MW goal in early March, but alluded to a need to rethink the financial incentives.
Hellerstein said the tremendous support for solar power crosses party lines. “Lots of people have seen the benefits,” he said.
Over 20,000 of the clean energy jobs in 2014 were in the installation and maintenance fields. In Massachusetts, it’s the law that anyone who installs a solar panel has to be a licensed electrician.
That’s where IBEW comes in. Nationwide, the union is one of the largest building trades unions. The Boston chapter, 103, has over 7000 dues paying workers. A representative sits on the board of directors for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
“Nationally, green collar and blue collar should be allies, “ said Matt Lash, director of business development for IBEW 103. “But with green energy, there’s a disconnect. This is where the unions come in.”
Lash added, “Can’t say you’re green if you don’t give a hoot about workers.”
Nationally, Lash said, there’s been a huge push to create green jobs. But that’s caused issues too. In an attempt to get recession-hit workers back in the job force, programs tried to rush through solar training programs. Many were unsuccessful.
Solar energy isn’t a new thing, and the union workers, according to Lash, have been doing it for years. IBEW has been training its electricians in clean energy for over a decade. The turbine outside the Dorchester headquarters is the first turbine in the state. IBEW 103 has invested millions into its training program, which can be an affordable alternative to college. All IBEW trained electricians know how to install solar panels.
There are non-union licensed electricians as well, and often, they can be cheaper than the unions. Lash argues that while there are some non-union solar installers who know what they’re doing, there are also electricians who will cut corners and could even cause damage to a roof.
But the potential for jobs goes beyond unions and electrical workers. Massachusetts is a leader in clean-tech research, with energy and sustainability startups, incubators and grants fueling growth. The New England Clean Energy Council runs Cleantech Northeast, a network dedicated to providing resources to energy innovators and entrepreneurs. Greentown Labs is a cleantech incubator and coworking space in Somerville, which attracts innovators from all over.
And all of those companies need nontechnical people too. They need to sell their product, or manage the electricians.
Krista Reichert is an assistant professor of energy and sustainability at Bunker Hill Community College. Under a Department of Labor grant called the Massachusetts Community Colleges and Workforce Development Transition Development Agenda, she designed a new certificate program, based on an identified need for employees.
Reichert’s program trains students — who skew a bit older than the typical college student, and who typically work full-time while at Bunker Hill — to fill the non-technical needs of clean energy companies. Unlike IBEW, her program doesn’t train electricians. It trains people to go into managerial positions, or sales, at these solar or energy efficiency companies.
The program is only a year old, and Reichert said many students have gone on to get their bachelor’s or associate’s degree, so she doesn’t have concrete numbers on how many go into the field.
But she’s confident that they’re filling a niche. “We wouldn’t create these programs if we didn’t see demand from employers.”