Solar Energy

Like almost all renewable energy, solar is booming right now. In 2014 more solar capacity was installed in the United States than any other energy type. These installations pushed total US solar capacity to 22,700 MW, or enough to power 4.6 million homes. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware have all contributed greatly to these impressive numbers, ranking (respectively) 2nd, 8th, and 15th in total installed capacity.

While Pennsylvania has been a strong installer of solar, the city of Philadelphia has lagged behind. To improve this, the Council has pushed three main initiatives. The first has been to use local government where possible to support solar, such as passing pro-solar resolutions and making the permitting process more efficient. Second has been our Solarize campaign to get people to actually purchase solar panels for their homes. Lastly, our Solar Youth campaign aims to ensure that Philadelphia low-income youth benefit from the job opportunities presented with more solar installations.

Solar advocacy

According to the Department of Energy, Pennsylvania has installed over 188 MW of solar power. Of that, though, only 3.6 MW of it (less than 2%) is in Philadelphia. To help Philadelphia catch up, the Council pushed for Philadelphia City Council to support more solar power. With our support and testimony, City Council unanimously passed resolution 140188, “Supporting the Future of Solar Energy in the City of Philadelphia” which set a goal of 20,000 solar rooftops in Philadelphia by 2025.

The Council is also working to make the permitting process for installing solar panels more streamlined. Currently, solar installation permit applications are treated like other building permits and take about a month to work their way through the approval process. This adds greatly to the costs of solar installations, and in some cases makes it uneconomical for solar companies to install in the city. The Council has helped organize multi-stakeholder meetings on how to better streamline permits and save money and remains part of this on-going process to improve the system.

Solarize

The Council has gone out and done the difficult work of getting people to actually buy solar panels for their homes through local “solarize” campaigns . These campaigns organize communities to purchase solar panels in bulk, thus reducing the costs for everyone involved. Our pilot program in Mount Airy included 8 community meetings to explain the benefits of solar and how homeowners could use their collective buying power to get solar systems for their homes at greatly reduced costs. Through the program, we educated over 125 people and got commitments from 15 households to go solar. Our total impact was about 75 kilowatts, which is the equivalent of planting over 25,000 trees. Another campaign is planned for fall 2016 in Philadelphia.

Solar Youth

Philadelphia has more people living in deep poverty than any other large city in the U.S. The solar industry’s rapid growth in the United States creates a unique opportunity for training and employment of Philadelphia’s low-income youth. Over 142,000 Americans were employed in the solar industry during the last quarter of 2013; this represents a 20% increase from 2012 and a growth rate over ten times faster than the overall US economy in that same time. The solar industry will continue to grow at a fast pace, as employment of solar installers is projected to grow 24% over the next ten years.

Right now, Philadelphia youth have trouble finding jobs in the solar industry. Many Philadelphia high school students do not graduate with the technical knowledge and skills needed to enter the field. The result is that Philadelphia’s labor force is unprepared to effectively install and market solar panels.

As the solar industry matures and becomes more competitive, education and training will be required to develop an effective workforce that can readily step into solar job openings, and the cost of training skilled workers will be more easily borne by the industry. In the meantime, the Council and Solar States (a local solar installer) are making up for the lack of training programs with our own, SolarYouth.

SolarYouth began in 2013 as a course taught by Solar States at YouthBuild Charter School. In 2014, Solar States asked the Council to help teach the class after recognizing a need for instruction on the soft costs of solar, such as marketing, communications, and community outreach skills that are essential to solar sales jobs. The Department of Energy has found that solar financing and non-hardware costs (soft costs) make up nearly two-thirds of the cost of home solar systems. They also found that customer acquisition alone is priced at $0.48/W, which is about 16% of the total cost of the install. Many solar installation companies end up losing valuable time and money on soft skills training when these skills could easily be taught in workforce development programs.

The Council and Solar States have launched a revamped SolarYouth program for the 2015-2016 school year, building off of past successes from the 2013-2014 program. This newer version emphasizes the technical aspects of solar installation as well as the marketing and sales aspects. The Council trains students on tabling and canvassing techniques to promote solar through mock and real sales opportunities. This fall, students will also gain service hours and real-world work experience by volunteering in a solarize campaign. During the campaign, students will work at neighborhood fairs and events, make presentations about the campaign, and conduct other types of outreach to market solar energy. Solar States teaches students the scientific fundamentals and technical aspects of solar. Students participate in demonstrations on how to install a solar power system and have the opportunity to install solar themselves. At the end of the program, students are encouraged to take the North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals (NABCEP) Entry- Level exam; passing this exam would demonstrate that the student is well on his/her way to becoming a solar professional. The Council works closely with the students to ensure that they have opportunities for future employment, internships, and continuing education in solar after the program. Importantly, two of the instructors that have assisted with this program are graduates from the original SolarYouth program and gained employment with Solar States after graduating YouthBuild.

For more information on this, or to get involved, please contact Matt Walker at 215-567-4004 ext. 121, or email mwalker@cleanair.org.

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