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Ramping up for solar jobs

South Boston News
Construction contractor employees are shown installing solar modules for Cypress Creek Renewables at the firm’s Shoe Creek solar farm in Laurinburg, N.C. Cypress Creek is looking to build solar energy facilities in the Nathalie and Chase City areas of Halifax and Mecklenburg counties. (Company photo)
SoVaNow.com / June 11, 2018
Solar energy developers and community college officials are teaming up to create a new program for the training of hundreds of workers to build solar facilities throughout southern Virginia.

Southside Virginia Community College is partnering with the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, industry advocacy group MDV-SEIA, and several solar companies including Cypress Creek Renewables and SolUnesco to design a 40-60 hour training program. They will assess how many workers are needed to meet construction demands and teach specialized skills for the mounting of acres upon acres of shimmering solar panels.

“From what I’ve seen, there’s an opportunity for several hundred people to get a very good job with short term training,” said Keith Harkins, vice president of Workforce and Continuing Education at SVCC.

The majority of work in installing a solar farm is basic construction. However, the projects also demand laborers skilled in electrical work, operating heavy machinery, fencing work, and landscaping. Firms outside of Southside are expected to do much of the engineering and environmental design. Other project needs, however, merit a separate workforce training program, officials say.

“Certainly the seriousness of working with electricity is part, as well as learning details of working around solar panels and those techniques.

“Individual solar panels tie together to create a huge solar field,” he said. Trainees who go through the new program will learn the ins and outs of “installation of the racks and solar panels and how they all tie together,” Harkins said.

The pilot class — focused on entry-level jobs — will be in session this fall, and if successful, full cohorts will follow. Francis Hodsell, CEO of SolUnesco, put the goal plainly: “When folks show up at a job site they [will] understand what the work is about.”

Harkins explained that Hodsell first approached SVCC with the idea, which he forwarded on behalf of MDV-SEIA, an umbrella organization representing solar companies and related construction firms from Maryland to Virginia. The companies are seeking a stable, highly trained supply of construction workers to reduce turnover on their projects.

Hodsell credited SVCC with playing a vital role as well: “They lay out pieces together and find pieces that fit the companies’ needs.”

The SVCC program will be funded in part through a tobacco commission grant of $400,000. Of that amount, most will go towards the community college’s Power Line Worker Training Program, but $50,000 will be earmarked to train solar panel workers. According to the SVCC grant proposal, it will be the only program of its kind in the region.

Enrollees will have the opportunity to earn five industry credentials which will help them earn jobs with other firms and help advance them to managerial duties, including OSHA 10.

Solar companies, including Hodsell’s SolUnesco, have offered another combined $25,000 to support the program.

“There is, in all likelihood, thousands of jobs shaping up, generally in rural Virginia,” Hodsell said. “We would hope the industry develops in Southside because there is so much demand.”

Southside Virginia is popular among solar farm developers because it has large tracts of undeveloped land, high transmission capacity for supplying electricity to the outside world, and land can be purchased at a good price, Hodsell said. In turn, “We can provide pricing to a landowner that is higher than basic agriculture or timber operations,” he said.

Hodsell said the region could become an operational hub for the solar industry but stressed that this was a long-term goal. Focusing on the short-term, he said, “You’re going to see early to mid next year several project up in Southside.” He predicted the projects would continue through the latter half of the next decade.

Whether all or even most of the solar projects announced so far materialize is difficult to know. Five solar farms have been approved in Halifax County, but county administrator James Halasz said that none of them have begun construction. Hodsell noted that projects do not always come to fruition. “If history is any guide, some will not become operational,” he said.

Additionally, he recognized that solar energy generation “doesn’t generate a lot of long term operational jobs.”

One proposed facility, Cypress Creek Renewable’s Water Strider solar farm in Nathalie, is predicted to require 200 jobs during its construction. These are mainly in electrical work, installation, and construction. Cypress Creek’s senior manager of public relations Ally Copple said, “We hope to be able to hire as many people locally as possible for this work, and we see the partnership with Southside [community college] helping us meet this goal.”

Cypress Creek also is planning to build a 913-acre solar energy array in Mecklenburg County. All three of Mecklenburg’s approved solar projects are slated to be near Chase City town limits. Town Manager Angela Laurence said that the town council has supported the projects in hopes of generating economic activity in Chase City. Service industries would benefit from 200 new workers.

“That’s the center of a great resource here in Chase City, and we’d like to encourage solar companies to use as much local labor as possible,” Laurence said.

Both SolUnesco and Cypress Creek Renewables said they hoped to tap into the local work force. Hodsell said, “We, as an industry, want to do what we can to ensure the economic benefit stays here in Virginia.”

Copple agreed: “We hope to be able to hire as many people locally as possible for this work, and we see the partnership with Southside helping us meet this goal.

Many of these projects will break ground in 2019, and the industry hopes to expand its impact over the next 10 years. Successfully trained workers are expected to be in high demand with large construction firms in Virginia and North Carolina, and they can often find their ways to managerial positions. However, these plans are still in flux.

“There’s a lot, justified, [whether] that these solar farms lead to long term benefits. It’s up to Southside. If the region wants to embrace the project or work with us,” Hodsell said. “We’ll get to a place where this has been a catalyst for a lot of good things.”

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