DESERT HOT SPRINGS, California — In the driveway of a beige, single-family stucco house, teens in green T-shirts and hard hats check the serial numbers on two of the 13 solar panels that will soon be installed on the roof. Then they check the voltage on the panels — just a few of the tasks they’ll complete to assist the crew members that are mapping out where the panels will go and running the conduit that will protect the wires.
Meanwhile, the homeowner's mother is in the kitchen, cooking rice, beans and tacos, and three little girls yell “Hi!” to the workers outside.
The two-day project is one of many that students from Desert Hot Springs High School’s Renewable Energy Academy of Learning (REAL) have completed over the past seven years in the Coachella Valley region as part of Grid Alternatives’ Solar Futures program.
A nonprofit with offices in California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., and Nicaragua, Grid Alternatives brings free solar to low-income communities. Homeowners that qualify for the program agree to provide lunch for the crew and ideally, share information about the program with their neighbors.
Through the five-hour Solar Futures program, which receives support from Silicon Valley-based SunPower, the organization exposes high school students to the renewable energy field and provides opportunities to participate in an installation.
“When we let them know there’s an install coming up, it’s always a rush to see who can get their papers in first,” says career and technical education teacher Casey Heiser. “All of them want to do it.”
A Solar Futures “toolkit” with an introduction to renewables and career pathways is also available for elementary and middle schools.
Eleventh-grader Giovanni Elizalde first learned about REAL when he was in 8th grade.
“What interested me the most was hands-on work,” he says. “Most academies will tell you this, this and this. [REAL] actually takes you on the job site. You gain the skills and make mistakes, obviously.”
Because he’s not yet 18, he’ll have to wait until next year to work on the roof, but he’s also looking at his prospects beyond high school. “I’m trying to make some good future decisions."
A ‘technologically forward' field
Elizalde did his homework. Jobs in the solar industry — for installers specifically — are expected to grow at a faster than average rate by 2026 compared to other occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The continued expansion and adoption of solar panel installations will result in excellent job opportunities for qualified individuals, particularly those who complete photovoltaic training courses at a community college or technical school,” according to BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook.
In addition to installers, the "technologically forward" field includes engineers, project managers and finance and accounting experts, notes Cristina Beras Aulet, the director of operations for SolAmerica Energy, an Atlanta-based company.
"For the future I see great need for people interested in working on the solar and renewable industry," she says. "Just take a look at the regulatory environment right now; the continued demand for renewables as an alternative to other sources of power has been steadily increasing in the past years and it doesn’t look like it will stop anytime soon."
In this valley north of Palm Springs, where windmills also stand along either side of two-late roads, solar “just makes sense,” says Lisa Castilone, who manages community development and tribal programs for Grid Alternatives. “This is like the solar haven of California.”
As an academy program, REAL integrates academic content with CTE. For example, a science teacher was recently using water flow to explain electricity, explains Ryan Woll, part of the Palm Springs Unified School District’s Linked Learning and CTE program. A student in the class responded that if there’s a pinch in the trough, “that’s like a resistor in a circuit,” says Woll, pumping his fist. “Yes!”
Working alongside the installation team, students are also learning about some of the latest advancements in the industry, such as each panel having a microinverter, which keeps the whole system from going out if one panel isn’t working.
Students can also earn 10- and sometimes 30-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certificates, which gives them a “leg up” when looking for jobs, Heiser says.
Across the country, in less-sunny Staten Island, New York, students at Ralph R. McKee CTE High School who have turned 18 can take a certification exam from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, a professional organization for those in the renewable energy field.
“In my program, a lot of the students do see it as a potential career to pursue,” says Robert Cintron, the electrical installation teacher at McKee, one of 11 schools in the New York City area that works with Solar One, which focuses on workforce training and bringing solar to affordable housing communities. As part of its Green Design Lab program, the nonprofit pairs high school teachers with industry experts to co-teach a two-week solar curriculum and then provides professional development to teachers so they can deliver it on their own.
Students learn how to “calculate if a building is a good fit for solar,” Cintron says. They also build small, two-panel solar systems. Cintron would like to eventually create partnerships with community organizations to allow students a chance to participate in an installation.
A need for better data
The addition of courses in renewable energy at the high school level demonstrates how CTE programs are evolving to meet the needs of students who want to leave school with job skills as well as the demands of employers in emerging industries.
But Melissa Canney, the director of innovation policy for the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, says there isn't enough data available on renewable programs in schools, which hinders efforts to match students with future job opportunities.
Under the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), there are 16 CTE clusters, and renewable energy could fit in more than one of them, Canney notes, adding that states define what programs go into each cluster and don't all report data the same way.
There is variation across states on whether NABCEP certification is required or preferred to work in the industry. In addition, FEE's work on industry credentials also shows that many certifications available to high school students, while necessary, may be oversupplied in the workforce.
A 'bigger vision'
Solar-school partnerships can also help refresh educators skills, explains Karen Alsen, the director of K-12 education for Solar One. Teachers who have been in the field for 20 to 30 years don’t always have the most up-to-date knowledge on the energy industry, she explains. Plus, even the solar field is “changing pretty rapidly,” she said.
In addition to moving toward microinverters, there are now more systems with back-up batteries, with storage still being a “pretty big obstacle” in New York City, Alsen said.
Solar One developed its work in schools in partnership with the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Sustainability and its Office of Postsecondary Readiness. The idea developed because more schools in the city were adding solar energy systems.
“All these schools are getting solar, but they aren’t teaching solar,” Alsen said.
Recent research has shown that solar panels on schools can result in significant savings in energy costs, which are typically second only to salary expenses for school districts. The installations then provide schools with STEM learning opportunities. In fact, through the NYCDOE’s CTE Industry Scholars Program, four students participated in paid internships this past summer working on school installations.
Plans for the city also “talk a lot about green jobs,” Alsen says. “It’s good for students to see this isn’t a one-off thing. It’s really tying to the bigger vision of the city.”