Whatcom develops the workforce for the transition to solar and clean energy

Markus Virta wants to add six more employees to Western Solar’s 13-person solar installation team – now.

The Bellingham-based company, where Virta works as director of sales and business development, is experiencing the longest wait times for rooftop solar installations in the company’s history. Call Western Solar today and you may be able to install solar panels on your roof by January 2023, at the earliest.

“We have a lot of work to do in the industry,” Virta said, noting that he would much rather see wait times in the two-month range. “We must continue to create more jobs.”

A colossal transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean energy is coming to Washington and around the world – or at least scientists warn it must if humanity is to avoid worsening climate change that endangers communities and ecosystems.

But the infrastructure to support this transition, such as solar panels, does not materialize out of thin air: it requires workers who know what they are doing.

“We need a lot of good, skilled people in the trades needed to make a clean energy transformation successful,” said Dana Brandt, founder of Bellingham-based Ecotech Solar. “From where I stand, it seems pretty clear that we don’t have the electrical tradespeople needed to do a massive overhaul of the infrastructure.”

Local leaders, educators and businesses are wrestling with the question of how to quickly grow this workforce.

“Jobs are really a big part of this conversation here,” Bellingham climate and energy manager Seth Vidaña said during a presentation to city council on April 11, discussing electrification goals and energy efficiency in the city. This involves work to install electric heat pumps and reduce energy consumption in buildings. Vidaña’s presentation focused on the potential uses of the city’s proposed Climate Action Fund.

“If we continue to invest in local solar energy, we may need to invest in workforce development and may see an increase in jobs locally through this effort,” Vidaña said.

Solar is a young enough industry that a lack of experienced installation workers makes it difficult for local companies to quickly scale up operations when demand is high, Ecotech Solar’s Brandt said.

“It would be impossible for me to hire several qualified and experienced trades people and have another team,” he says. Ecotech does all of its training in-house, which means there’s “a big lag between when you hire someone and when they’re ready to go,” Brandt said.

“If you want to become a licensed electrician, it’s worth it,” said Laura Wurth, an engineering technology and clean energy instructor at Bellingham Technical College. “(The energy transition) has given them a huge job niche that will probably be sustained over time.”

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A team from Western Solar installs rooftop solar panels in Bellingham in 2020. Community colleges and the town of Bellingham are developing plans to develop a skilled workforce for the solar industry. Trish Merriman, Western Solar Courtesy of the Bellingham Herald

Community colleges develop programs

There is one ingredient absolutely necessary to build a strong solar and clean energy workforce: time.

What Wurth said a lot of people don’t realize is that trades training can be just as rigorous as a four-year bachelor’s degree program. To become a travel-level electrician, you spend a few years at Bellingham Technical College learning the basics before moving on to an apprenticeship while continuing to take courses. You don’t get credentials for a few years, Wurth said.

The clean energy transition requires tradespeople to have higher levels of basic technical expertise than before, Wurth said, citing conversations with tradespeople. At the same time, there is a decreasing need for unskilled workers or people without formal training, said Wurth, who uses the pronoun they. Someone who hauls panels across a roof is more valuable if the person can also function as “an electrician’s assistant, rather than just a muscle,” Wurth said.

Renewables are changing rapidly, they said, with rapidly changing technology meaning critical changes every year and new commercial accents as often as every three months.

“We need to be in a dynamic state with local and national businesses and say ‘OK, what do you need now? What are the basics you know you’ll always need, and what are the new tweaks? says Würth.

What the community college is demanding from local governments and businesses is data and voice support proving there is a need for the workers the school is able to produce, Wurth said.

“Without a professional role, we can associate something that we could rightfully teach, the state says ‘Ah, they don’t need anything, they’re good.’ But we are no good,” Wurth said.

Wurth asks employers to be specific in online job postings about what skills a worker needs and whether someone with two years of training can meet that need.

“Are you ready to break out of traditional job roles and maybe create something that fills a need and allows for more on-the-job training?” Würth said. “Things move fast enough that we can’t produce someone who can walk in the door and do it all. Would you trust someone who could?

Bellingham Technical College is currently working to identify the skill sets that almost all clean energy companies need.

“If you’re going to walk through the door of a green building company, a solar installer, one of the big civilian companies renovating parts of transmission lines, what does everyone seem to need someone? ‘one with two years of training?’ Würth said.

At Northwest Indian College, developing the solar workforce is bringing the Lummi Nation closer to energy sovereignty, said Stephanie Bostwick, chair of the college’s engineering department. The tribe ultimately plans to spin off completely from Puget Sound Energy and own all of its power generation and transmission, Bostwick said. A skilled renewable energy workforce is key to achieving this goal.

The college is building a grant-funded “dummy roof” on the ground – students can practice installing solar panels without worrying about safety equipment. The college plans to partner with Western Solar to allow students who have completed online training and practiced on the false roof to date professional teams. The hope is that many of these workers will bring this skill set back to their community, Bostwick said.

“Traditionally someone has the option of leaving the reservation for a really good job or staying and doing something that they’re overqualified for because the jobs aren’t there,” Bostwick said. “We aim to educate our people so that they can stay within the community.”

Bellingham: A hub of clean energy jobs?

Western Solar’s Virta believes workforce development in solar and clean energy can begin much earlier than college. He would like to see the city orchestrate programs that give children the experience of the trades as early as elementary school. This would allow young people to better weigh their options after high school without the stigma between the technical path and attending a four-year college, Virta said.

“We really have to look carefully at how we educate the next generation, top down,” he said.

Virta, who was born and raised in Bellingham, dreams of Whatcom County becoming a hub for clean energy jobs. His frustration with Bellingham is that although it is “an amazing community immersed in the outdoors”, it has “always been difficult to find career employment” here. He sees clean energy development and trades as part of the solution to this problem.

“It’s important to recognize that we can’t all be software programmers, and we don’t need to be,” Virta said. “There are a lot of lucrative careers in the trades.

But it’s not just about the money, he says. Working in the trades gives people a sense of empowerment and satisfaction – they walk away having created something tangible that helps fight climate change and power homes.

“It builds the soul,” he said.

Follow more of our reporting on the Bellingham Herald’s Climate Change News

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Ysabelle Kempe joined the Bellingham Herald in the summer of 2021 to cover environmental affairs. She graduated from Northeastern University in Boston and worked for the Boston Globe and Grist.

Michael A. Bynum