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MAHNOMEN—Near the tall grasses outside White Earth Tribal and Community College, students huddled around a small ground-mounted-unit solar array on an unusually warm October day. The trainees, ranging in age from recent high school graduates to people in their 60s, took turns connecting wires, testing voltage, and flipping switches that connected the panels to a large battery.
“Be gentle with the wires,” instructor George Lemelin cautioned them. “Take your time, relax, no worry or hurry about anything.”
The five students were wrapping up a 45-hour solar-energy training certificate program that gives a basic introduction to electrical work with an emphasis on solar power. To test their knowledge, the group assembled, connected, tested, and powered up a ground-mounted solar array.
For Andrew Goodwin, 45, the course is a chance to change careers. After 20 years of union masonry jobs, he’s looking for rewarding work that’s easier on his body. He sees opportunities for trade work in solar in northwestern Minnesota.
“I’d like to make my own system and sell it,” he said.
Solar energy jobs are on the rise in Minnesota, and new workers are in demand, according to a new report published by Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that promotes renewable energy. The solar industry grew 9 percent last year, the report found, higher than the 5 percent growth seen overall in clean-energy jobs, which include heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), clean-car production, and renewable energy like wind and solar power.
But 84 percent of companies in the clean-energy sector reported trouble hiring qualified workers, according to Gregg Mast, executive director of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota.
The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act expanded and extended existing tax credits on solar power projects for commercial and residential users, which renewable energy experts believe will supercharge growth in the sector.
“We expect the job opportunities to significantly expand,” Mast said.
A partnership with benefits for all
The solar certification program is a partnership between the White Earth Tribal and Community College and Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on using solar power to help alleviate poverty in northern Minnesota.
In 2019, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance and White Earth Nation received funding from Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Legacy Fund to install about 200 kilowatts of solar power around the reservation. Construction occurred in 2020 and 2021 at five sites, including on the college campus and at the Head Start center. The tribe and Energy Alliance decided to deepen their ties, and launched the training program in November 2020.
The two-week, 45-hour course is basically a paid internship. Students earn an hourly wage, and they leave with a certification that lets them work on any solar job site in Minnesota and an electricians kit.
Lemelin, a pastor, teaches the course. He’s a fan of alternative energy sources first drawn to solar by the Y2K movement, when many people feared a collapse of the traditional power grid upon the dawn of a new millennium.
“We need to use all the resources out there to make sure we all have enough,” Lemelin said.
He invited a former parishioner, Vernon Jackson, to take the course in March. Jackson, 27, works in the maintenance department for the Shooting Star Casino on the reservation. He liked the solar course, and now uses some of what he learned there in his current job.
“The fact that we can harvest that power and convert that to energy, I like that a lot,” Jackson said.
Jackson joined a group of course finishers who worked for a few days on a Minnesota Power project at a 15-megawatt installation near Baxter. He’s interested in doing more solar energy work in the future.
On October 21, White Earth Tribal and Community College received a new designation that will give its students more opportunities in the solar-energy field. It was informed that it is now a North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners testing site. That means students can become accredited solar installers, which will allow them to earn higher wages.
With the basic certification course, students can earn at least $20 per hour on the job. But as they gain more experience and become certified through the board, those wages can rise to around $43 per hour, according to Jennifer Jacquot-DeVries, interim director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance.
A major attraction of the program, and of new testing accreditation on campus, is that tribal members don’t have to leave home to earn the qualifications, said Bridget Guiza, customized-education coordinator for the college.
“We’re trying to sync up these goals to meet industry demands and community needs,” she said.
Guiza has ambitious goals for the program, and recently submitted a request for a workforce training grant from the Department of Energy to expand with a hope of graduating more than 200 students in the next three years. She hopes White Earth can partner with other tribal colleges in Minnesota to develop similar programs on other campuses.
The workforce for green-energy jobs continues to be more diverse than the overall workforce in Minnesota, according to the Clean Energy Economy Minnesota report. The clean-energy job workforce is 26.6 percent people of color, while people of color make up 22.5 percent of the state’s population, according to the 2020 Census.
A window into a world of work possibilities
As Lemelin’s students connected the solar grid, the sun broke through the clouds and the four-panel array jumped up to 184 volts of load output.
Elias Lowry, a recent high school graduate from White Earth, measured the output using a meter reader.
Lowry, 19, said he was considering going to school in Moorhead to pursue an auto technical degree when his mom saw an advertisement for the solar course in the local paper. He decided to sign up. He said he liked learning about solar panels and thinks the industry will continue to grow.
“It opens your eyes up to a lot of opportunities,” he said.