The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has sported virtually the same logo since the union’s inception back in 1891: a clenched fist grasping radiating bolts of electricity. But that symbol could use a 21st-century update, showing an outstretched hand capturing rays of sunlight.
This year, the IBEW Local 300 has embraced Vermont’s clean-energy revolution with both hands, investing more than $100,000 to train members — from new apprentices to senior electricians — to install and maintain solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. This new worker-retraining program is part of a larger effort by the national union to reposition its members for more secure, high-paying jobs in the growing green-energy sector.
Last fall, Local 300, which represents approximately 1200 electricians and utility workers throughout the state, was awarded a $65,263 grant from the Vermont Department of Labor to jump-start its solar energy training program. The South Burlington-based union also landed a $35,000 solar-energy grant from an unlikely source: Entergy Nuclear-owned Vermont Yankee. IBEW also represents 200 workers at the Vernon facility.
Thus far, interest in the union’s solar program has been running white-hot, according to Matt Lash, IBEW’s marketing and business development director. Since January, 100 electricians have gone through the 32-hour, hands-on course, which teaches trades- people everything they need to know in order to site, install, maintain and troubleshoot a PV system. To date, every class has been filled, with demand far outstripping capacity.
“We can’t make the green-jobs phenomenon so exotic and just for the eco-chic,” says Lash. “These are jobs and duties that, for the most part, our tradespeople have been performing for many, many years, so we need to make that connection.”
Why so much interest in solar versus other renewables? In Vermont, solar is the least controversial of alternative energy sources. Unlike small- and large-scale wind energy, PV projects rarely encounter stiff community opposition. Typically, solar arrays are built on top of, or into, existing structures, and create no noise, visual obstructions or negative impacts on wildlife.
Plus, there have never been more financial incentives to invest in solar energy. In June the legislature passed the Vermont Energy Act of 2009, which allows new energy systems that feed power into the utility grid to receive premium rates for their power. Then, several weeks ago, the Vermont Public Service Board set new interim rates, known as “feed-in tariffs” for those systems.
Among all the forms of clean energy, solar clearly came out on top, earning 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 20 cents for small-scale wind, 16 cents for farm methane, and 12.5 cents for biomass and hydropower. As Lash puts it, “This is a major game changer.”
Last week, the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund announced $3.1 million in renewable energy grants. Included in those grants are seven projects through Housing Vermont totaling $500,000, and a $53,900 grant to build a solar PV array atop City Market in Burlington.
Clearly, the IBEW is trying to position its members to win at least some of those contracts, and others coming down the pike. According to a report released several weeks ago by the Center for American Progress, Vermont will see $300 million in new investments from the federal stimulus package and the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. Those investments will net 4270 new clean-energy jobs in Vermont, the report notes, even accounting for the potential loss of jobs in the fossil-fuel sector.
Moreover, while Vermont has lagged somewhat behind other states in certain clean-energy jobs — namely, large-scale wind development — the number of green-energy jobs in the state rose by 15.3 percent between 1998 and 2007, compared to an overall job growth rate of just 7.4 percent for the same period. As of 2007, there were 2161 clean-energy jobs and 311 clean-energy businesses in the Green Mountain State. Those 311 businesses patented 12 new clean-energy technologies in 2007 alone.
One local tradesman who’s thrown himself into the green-energy revolution is Matt Murphy, a fourth-year electrical apprentice working for Peck Electric in South Burlington. Murphy, 28, quit his job several years ago as a computer programmer to become an electrician, primarily because “I was really, really interested in solar power.”
Though Murphy isn’t yet licensed as an electrician, he was hired by Peck Electric to create the company’s solar energy division. Today, he not only oversees the company’s solar projects, he also teaches in the IBEW solar program, which has attracted everyone from new apprentices like himself to union electricians who’ve been in the trade for more than 30 years.
“There is a huge demand right now,” Murphy says. “I’ve only been with Peck Electric for two months and already we have enough projects to keep us busy for a long time.”