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The solar industry's quest to train a generation of clean-energy workers in Illinois

Daily Herald

Thursday, June 23, 2022  |  Article  |  Jenny Whidden

With Illinois looking ahead to its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2050, organizations are working to secure a workforce that is ready to install and maintain clean energy infrastructure, including solar arrays.

The passage of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act last fall essentially pushed up Illinois' previous goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025, setting a more ambitious target of 40% by 2030. With the state generating just 11% renewable electricity as of 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, stakeholders say they are preparing to train a new generation of energy workers to respond to the lofty legislation.

"Given the significant amount of clean energy opportunities in the state, we certainly are going to need an expanded workforce," said Lesley McCain, executive director of the Illinois Solar Energy Association. "The solar industry is open for business. We are hiring."

Solar energy most recently accounted for 0.93% of the state's electricity, creating about 5,200 jobs, according to the Solar Energies Industries Association.

One organization that is looking to ramp up workforce training in the solar space is the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council, the state's largest carpenters union.

The union's four-year apprentice program provides solar panel installation training to its apprentices and collaborates with contractors to build solar projects throughout the state.

Since 2019, the union has helped employ and build 250 solar projects in Illinois, said Anthony Janowski, the union's renewable energy director.

The union has five training centers in the state, including facilities in Elk Grove Village, Chicago and Rockford, and has trained more than 400 apprentices and journeymen -- carpenters who have already completed the apprenticeship -- in solar installation.

"(The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act) is a big undertaking, and it's going to take a huge workforce," Janowski said. "We have our boots to the ground."

With coal on its way out, Janowski said the program teaches those entering the workforce a diverse skill set, with the goal of keeping them employed.

"We have to scale our workforce with whatever the policy is," Janowski said.

Under the state climate act, the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is responsible for implementing dozens of investments in workforce development related to clean energy, including funding 13 training hubs across the state. The department is looking to have some of the hubs running by the end of the year.

Katie Stonewater, a senior adviser at the commerce department, said the hub locations are meant to help bolster a diverse workforce as well as support energy workers and communities facing plant closures. Locations will include the South and West sides of Chicago, Waukegan, Decatur, Carbondale and Alton.

The department also recently closed grant applications to fund three solar training programs: solar pipeline training, craft apprenticeship and multicultural jobs training. Training will target solar industry jobs such as solar installers, technicians and more, and the department is looking to announce those in a few months.

While training typically focuses on installation and maintenance, the Illinois Solar Energy Association's McCain said that covers just one portion of the workforce.

"Certainly we will need installers and salespeople, but the solar industry needs every type of position," McCain said. "We need accountants and we need HR people and we need communications. Just like any industry does, we need all the people to move this thing forward."

With the state's renewable energy output slowly marching forward, Mark Denzler, of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, is not as optimistic about the amount of clean energy jobs the state will be seeing as a result of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act.

The association's president and chief operating officer said Illinois has "failed miserably" when it comes to renewable energy.

"While we're moving in that direction, do I think that CEJA's going to create this huge panacea and you're going to see it take off? No," Denzler said. "We've had 15 years of experience that have taught us otherwise."

Denzler said the manufacturing industry supports and creates parts for renewable energy sectors, but the technology and infrastructure isn't there to support the loss of energy and jobs from scaling back coal and gas.

"We're not saying no to renewables. We think they're an important part of the future, but we also think that you have to plan appropriately and you have to have proper on-ramps and offramps," he said.