Community solar project expands VEA solar portfolio

A leader in solar water heating programs is now adding 15 megawatts of photovoltaic energy to its electricity supply. Valley Electric Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. (VEA) has constructed a 54,000-panel solar plant on 80 acres of desert near the California-Nevada border and plans to sell the power to members at a lower price than their current electric rates.

VEA's 54,000-panel solar plant produces enough electricity to power 2,500 homes.

VEA’s 54,000-panel solar plant produces enough electricity to power 2,500 homes. (Photo by Valley Electric Association)

The community solar project located just north of Pahrump, Nevada, VEA’s home town, produces enough electricity to power 2,500 homes. The goal of the plant, according to VEA CEO Thomas H. Husted, is to give members more choice of energy resources.

Members were showing interest in solar but weren’t able to install their own arrays, said Kristin Mettke, VEA executive vice president of Engineering and Compliance. “Also, there aren’t many large solar contracting companies in our service area,” she said. “This project was a good way to offer solar to our members at an economy of scale.”

VEA plans to turn the project into a subscription program. For now, however, the clean electricity is helping the co-op meet its growing demand with a low-cost resource.

Partnering to protect wildlife
Even projects intended to save money—and the environment—come with complications, however, and the community solar project was no different. The chosen site was home to sensitive plants and the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise, so accommodations had to be made.

VEA and solar contractor Bombard Renewable Energy worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a habitat conservation plan to minimize the disturbing effects of construction “It gave us the opportunity to try different approaches,” observed Mettke.

Measures included relocating tortoises to a temporary habitat before beginning construction and installing temporary fencing and tortoise-proof access gates to prevent them from returning. The completed project had a permanent security fence with tortoise access points to allow the animals to reenter the site.

To provide habitat for the tortoises, the native vegetation was mowed, crushed or trimmed, rather than removed. Increasing the height and spacing of the PV panels and installing them to follow the natural undulations of the land will also allow the vegetation to recover more quickly after construction.

Solar water heater pioneer
The community solar project continues VEA’s tradition of using solar solutions to provide members with affordable power. In 2009, the co-op launched what was, at the time, the largest solar hot water program in the country.

For around $30 per month paid on-bill, members can install a Rheem solar water heating system. This highly efficient technology uses the sun’s heat to reduce the need for conventional hot water heating by as much as two-thirds. Members can save about $250 to $540 in annually and enjoy 50-100 percent greater hot water capacity.

With 835 systems installed to date, the program avoids more than 3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually while building local workforce skills. VEA estimates that solar water heating will save members about $34 million over the next 20 years by decreasing peak power demands and delaying future upgrades to capital infrastructure.

Planning next steps
Now that the solar project is completed, VEA has begun to talk with battery vendors about adding backup storage. “A battery system would complement solar power and help with resource adequacy and shoulder times,” said Mettke.

The co-op is also developing a subscription program that would allow members to lease panels. The program would be introduced through VEA Ambassadors, members who take an active interest in the day-to-day operations of their utility and who offer feedback on VEA initiatives, activities and policies from a consumer perspective. The Ambassadors were instrumental in rolling out VEA’s solar hot water program in 2009.

The solar hot water program and now the utility-scale community solar project have given VEA valuable hands-on experience developing and integrating renewable generation. That expertise may someday come in handy for developing cost-effective clean energy projects for California. The co-op became the first out-of-state utility to join the California Independent System Operator balancing authority in 2013, a move that could present such opportunities to VEA. It would be a challenge, but if it strengthens member relations and builds local workforce skills, Valley Electric Association is up to it.

Federal, state, private agencies partner to increase solar access nationwide

The Obama administration unveiled a new cross-government partnership this week to increase access to solar power, promote energy efficiency and build a more inclusive workforce. In collaboration with state agencies, the Clean Energy Savings for All Americans Initiative aims to bring 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar to low- and moderate-income families by 2020.

DOE wants your ideas about how to structure and evaluate its Community Solar Challenge. Public comment is due Aug. 2.

DOE wants your ideas about how to structure and evaluate its Community Solar Challenge. Public comment is due Aug. 2. (Artwork by DOE SunShot Initiative )

The new program builds on the successes of the Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative, introduced in 2011. SunShot works with private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, state and local governments and national laboratories to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with conventional energy sources by 2020.

DOE is joining with the departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Veteran’s Affairs and the Environmental Protection Agency to make choosing solar an easier and more affordable option. The key components of the initiative will unlock financing mechanisms, bolster technical assistance for states and communities, drive innovation and scale up workforce training. These measures will enable more low- and moderate-income Americans to take advantage of the jobs that come with a transition to clean energy.

Accompanying executive actions
In addition to the launching Clean Energy Savings for All Americans, the administration is implementing several executive actions to support American communities in deploying renewable energy.

Programs to scale up Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, financing will allow homeowners to make energy improvements immediately and pay back the cost over time through their property taxes. Increased technical assistance will make it easier for low-income households to access hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for renewable energy investments. DOE and HUD will work with national laboratories to track the progress of deployment of solar energy systems on targeted households. 

DOE is developing a Community Solar Challenge that will award teams in dozens of communities up to $100,000 to develop innovative models to increase solar deployment and cut energy bills, in particular in low-income communities. Teams will build local capacity around the legal, technical, financial and administrative aspects of community solar programs and projects. The DOE SunShot Initiative has released a request for information to gather feedback and information on the structure of challenge. The deadline is Aug. 2.

The initiative also includes the sharing of best practices on how to finance and how to overcome barriers to creating healthier communities. Over the next months, summits on clean energy savings, community solar project financing and funding resources and training for vulnerable communities will convene across the country. You can keep up with these events and funding opportunities by subscribing to SunShot email updates newsletter.

Developing solar workforce
Solar jobs are growing 12 times faster than the rest of the economy, and the Obama administration hopes to train an additional 25,000 workers by 2020. To reach that goal, DOE has teamed up with the Solar Foundation to create the Solar Training Network. The network is designed to connect training providers, employers and job seekers to supply the skilled solar workforce the industry needs to continue to grow.

DOE is also implementing a community and workforce investment program to both create new employment opportunities and train low-income West Baltimore residents for jobs in the solar industry. The initiative will explore options to expand access to solar for renters and local individuals in the Baltimore area.

States, private sector get on board
More than 120 private, state, local and philanthropic sectors in 36 states are pledging to support Clean Energy Savings for All Americans. These new commitments represent $287 million in investment, and nearly 280 megawatts (MW) of community solar and low- and moderate-income solar deployment. Combined with previous commitments, this brings the total amount of commitments secured to more than $800 million in investment and more than 491 MW of solar power.

Rural electric cooperatives are among the partners committing to install community solar projects by the end of 2017. WAPA customer Sacramento Municipal Utility District You are leaving WAPA.gov. is among the more than 90 member-owned, not-for-profit power providers in 25 states that have brought online community solar projects in the last year.

Utilities hoping to bring the benefits of renewable energy into their communities can join the National Community Solar Partnership. You can learn more about starting a utility community solar program from Community Solar FAQ and find information to encourage solar homes in your territory with Solar Energy Resources for Homebuilders.

Source: DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy via Green Power News, 7/19/16

Introducing IREC’s Updated Solar Career Map

IREC’s Solar Career Map – new resource for training providers
Jan. 14, 12-1 p.m. MST

Update: This webinar is over, but visit YouTube for an overview of the Solar Career Map. You are leaving Western's site.

Join the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) on Jan. 14 for a free webinar on the Solar Career Map You are leaving Western's site., a comprehensive resource covering solar energy occupations.

IREC recently updated this interactive tool to demonstrate the breadth of the industry and its critical occupations, and to highlight the necessity of integrating solar training in related fields. The map describes diverse jobs across the industry and identifies the sorts of experience and credentials necessary to do them well.

Utilities with solar programs understand the importance—and the challenge—of building and maintaining a high-quality contractor pool for installing and servicing customer solar systems. This complimentary IREC webinar offers utility program managers an opportunity to connect with clean energy trainers and others involved in workforce development.

Attendees will learn how to:

  • Access the map’s interactive features, including 40 jobs in four sectors how they are related
  • Apply ideas about how you can leverage the map to make your work more effective
  • Find resources created by IREC and the Solar Instructor Training Network You are leaving Western's site. for community colleges and other solar training providers

The IREC team will answer your questions submitted in advance or during the webinar as time allows.

Source: Interstate Renewable Energy Council, 1/5/16

Silicon Valley Power responds to electric utility worker shortage with local scholarship awards

Deadline: Nov. 3, 2015

The utility industry is plagued by an aging workforce and by the challenge of finding employees qualified to replace those headed for retirement. In an effort to build its local pool of skilled electrical workers, Silicon Valley Power You are leaving Western's site. (SVP) in Santa Clara, California, is investing in the engineers and technicians of tomorrow.

Kara Johnson, 2009 Silicon Valley Power Scholarship recipient and Santa Clara High School graduate, works on a prototype circuit for a sensor used in her alternative biofuel research. Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate at U.C. San Diego after earning degrees in genetics and biological systems at U.C. Davis. (Photo by Silicon Valley Power)

Kara Johnson, 2009 Silicon Valley Power Scholarship recipient and Santa Clara High School graduate, works on a prototype circuit for a sensor used in her alternative biofuel research. Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate at U.C. San Diego after earning degrees in genetics and biological systems at U.C. Davis. (Photo by Silicon Valley Power)

College and technical school students living in Santa Clara and pursuing careers related to the electric utility industry may be eligible to receive scholarships or tuition grants from the city and SVP. The city is offering $5,000 scholarships to new and continuing college students and $2,000 to trade school trainees who will be enrolled by October 2016 for the 2016-17 school year. Students must apply by Nov. 3, 2015.

Career opportunities and salaries are on the rise for engineers, technicians and power line workers in the industry. SVP, Santa Clara’s municipal electric utility, wants to encourage students to explore those options. “Like SVP, utilities all over the country are looking for qualified workers to be part of the exciting new world of the smart grid,” said John Roukema, Director of SVP. “Satisfying and lucrative career opportunities abound for students completing courses that prepare them for work in the many fields of the electric utility industry.”

The program has awarded 30 college scholarships and six technical school grants totaling $162,000 since it started in 2006.

Applicants studying energy services, electric utilities, or fields associated with the power industry in general may download the application, or call 408-261-5036 for more information. Santa Clara residents have until Nov. 3, 2015 to submit applications for the SVP Scholarship Awards program.

Western salutes our customer Silicon Valley Power for taking a proactive approach to workforce development.

Source: Silicon Valley Power, 10/9/15

RMEL Foundation now accepting applications

Deadline: January 30, 2015

The challenge of building the next generation electric industry workforce is one that haunts many a utility, especially those in small towns and rural communities. The RMEL (Rocky Mountain Electric League) FoundationRedirecting to a non-government site addresses this issue by offering scholarship opportunities through its members.

The Foundation is currently accepting applications from students seeking baccalaureate degrees as well as students entering craft or certificate programs. Scholarships are available to high school seniors or college undergraduates enrolled in and pursuing an undergraduate or associate degree or entering an appropriate certificate program with the goal of a career in the electric energy industry.

Students from all parts of the RMEL service territory may apply. The RMEL Foundation selection committee evaluates applications based on goals and aspirations in the electric energy industry, motivation to succeed, service to community and school and academic ability.

Scholarships provided in the name of a donor are also available through the RMEL Foundation. The number of scholarships and amounts awarded depend on donations. Immediate family and employees of the donor are not eligible for these scholarships. Email James Sakamoto or call 303-865-5544 to donate a corporate named scholarship.

To apply, students must create an account with RMEL Foundation and complete the online form. All scholarship applications must be submitted online by 5 p.m. MST, January 30, 2015. No mailed submissions will be accepted.

The Foundation relies on RMEL member companies to promote these scholarships, and encourages members to share this opportunity throughout their companies and communities.  Help grow the electric energy workforce of tomorrow by sharing the 2015 scholarship application with your industry and education contacts.

Upcoming deadlines

Finding, cultivating qualified retrofit contractors getting easier

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series on overcoming barriers to customers implementing energy-efficiency improvements.

The key to successful energy-efficiency upgrades—and, therefore, to happy customers—is proper equipment selection, installation and user orientation, if needed. All of which require a qualified contractor who is committed to saving customers energy. While finding enough such vendors to support an energy-efficiency program continues to be a challenge, utilities now have more resources to help them cultivate trade allies.

As with project financing [link to story re-posted on Breaking News], the strategy a utility uses to develop a contractor pool depends on specific factors—the size and population of the service territory, local regulations, the measures a utility chooses to promote. No one size fits all (yes, that phrase again), but the number of utility program models is growing, along with educational programs to train the next generation of contractors.

Utility examples

Many utility programs require customers to hire contractors from a list of preferred vendors, though the qualifications for being included on the list vary greatly. Contractors doing work for Midwest Energy’s How$mart program must simply sign an agreement to install the utility-prescribed measures according to local building code. Fort Collins Utilities’ Home Efficiency Program requires contractors to attend orientation and specialized training, maintain Better Business Bureau accreditation and meet certain insurance requirements. Utilities generally contract with a third-party business or nonprofit organization to provide training.

Where there is a large and diverse labor pool, utilities may allow customers to hire their own contractors to install prescribed measures, but follow up with an inspection by a certified provider. That’s how Platte River Power Authority on Colorado’s Front Range operates its Building Tune-up program for commercial buildings. An approved retrocommissioning service provider identifies ways to improve a building’s efficiency and oversees the projects implemented by contractors the customer chooses.

Platte River takes this approach because retrocommissioning is a specific skill, but post-installation inspections also provide quality assurance—an important step in successful energy-efficiency projects. A knowledgeable utility employee or another third-party energy services professional may perform the inspection. 

Growing the skills

Even in a metropolitan area, however, energy services experts and contractors experienced in energy-efficiency measures don’t grow on trees. That is slowly changing, thanks to programs emerging around the country to train and certify contractors in energy-efficient building practices.

Volunteers participating in the Community Energy Exchange mentoring event at Easter Seals Rocky Mountain Village in Empire, Colo., prepare to do a blower door test on a camp cabin. The event taught basic energy auditing and weatherization skills while improving the efficiency and safety of camp buildings. (Photo by Community Energy Exchange)

Nonprofit organizations like Affordable Comfort Inc. (ACI) and Electric & Gas Industries Association (EGIA) offer a full menu of webinars and workshops highlighting best practices in the home performance industry. They work with the Building Performance Institute (BPI), the nation’s standards setting and credentialing organization for energy efficiency retrofit work, to raise the bar in home performance contracting.
 
Regional, state and local groups often team up with these national organizations to put on training and networking events in their own territories. Partnering offers local businesses, utilities and educators a way to increase their reach and resources while addressing the issues specific to their own situation.

Community colleges, with their focus on job readiness, are finding a niche with “green building” programs. Given California’s leadership in energy efficiency, it is not surprising that Los Angeles Community College boasts a cutting-edge sustainable building program. Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colo., is building a green collar workforce with degree and certificate programs across a range of sustainability disciplines. Even in Utah, where energy prices are relatively low, Salt Lake City Community College’s Green Academy offers a lengthy list of certificates in renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies.

On the private side, Everblue Training Institute, a nationwide continuing education institute, partners with BPI, Energy Star, the U.S. Green Building Council and several universities to advance green building skills. Colorado-based Lightly Treading targets both consumers and contractors, offering energy services to the former and training and exam proctoring for BPI certification  to the latter. This two-pronged approach is one way to make sure that you have qualified contractors to meet your customers’ needs.

Local nonprofit organizations are another avenue for developing the building performance workforce. Sustainable Ideas has partnered with many of the industry associations, schools and businesses noted above to design mentoring and training programs, and do some good in the community in the process. Through its Community Energy Exchange, auditors and contractors have sharpened their skills on projects that improve safety and energy efficiency in low-income housing and nonprofit facilities.

But first, demand

Of course, contractors won’t sign up for training unless they see a consumer demand for energy efficiency. That requires nothing short of market transformation, a seemingly glacial process. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act moved the ball forward by funding state and local programs that raised consumer awareness about energy-efficiency measures, and created a demand for contractors to install them.

Energy Upgrade California is one of those stimulus-funded programs. Local governments, municipalities and utilities created an umbrella initiative to help homeowners make energy-saving improvements, and to give local contractors the opportunity to learn new skills. All contractors participating in Energy Upgrade must complete mandatory orientation session workshops and hold a Whole-House Home Energy Rating System Certification. Over the year that the program has been in operation, 507 contractors have fulfilled the requirements to become Energy Upgrade vendors.

The Home Energy Makeover Contest is a good tool for raising both consumer and contractor awareness by showing how energy retrofits create a positive cash flow. Winning homes are selected for their potential to show how efficiency upgrades can reduce energy consumption. Delta-Montrose Electric Association in Colorado pioneered the promotion, and BPI now sponsors contests with utilities around the country. The contests have helped to increase awareness of home performance assessment and retrofit services, which in turn contributes to more people earning BPI certification—currently at about 22,000 individuals.

Before the contest takes place, BPI recommends that sponsors conduct contractor outreach and training. Contractor networking events like the Rocky Mountain Contractor Exchange might be held as a precursor to a makeover contest, or presented as an annual regional event to build interest and momentum.

No standard certification

The last piece of the puzzle is developing nationally recognized professional certifications, so customers can make informed decisions when hiring contractors—a challenge that won’t disappear any time soon.

More than 100 organizations nationwide are working with the home performance industry to establish guidelines for quality work, effective training and professional certifications. Unfortunately, like building codes, every jurisdiction has its own unique needs and its own ideas about what is important. Expect this challenge to be with the industry for some time to come.

That being said, utilities that have, or want to launch, a retrofit program should get to know what kind of skills exist in the local contractor pool and start building a network. The resources in this story only scratch the surface so there is no need to wait to reap the benefits energy-efficiency upgrades offer customers, power providers, the economy and the environment. 

Building energy work force is topic of APPA/DEED webinar March 30

An APPA webinar, Fostering the Energy Work Force Pipeline – Best Practices from SMUD’s DEED Project, will discuss one utility’s approach to making sure it has qualified workers in the future. The webinar will take place on March 30, from 2-3:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

The electric utility industry in the United States is facing a shortage of qualified workers in engineering disciplines. Baby boomers are retiring. The loss of these experienced workers comes at a time of rapid technological change in the energy industry (advanced metering infrastructure, smart grid, distributed generation, storage, and renewable generation). At the same time, a shortfall is expected in the number of students training for careers in math and science. Read more, and register.

Source: American Public Power Association, 3/22/11

The Colorado Governor’s Energy Office Planning Horizon

Joani Matranga, Western Regional Representative, Colorado Governor’s Energy Office

The bad news is that Colorado’s energy efficiency rating according to ACEEE slipped to 19th in the nation. The good news is that states are leading the way to develop a clean energy economy.

While the issue of climate change is a non-starter with the public, we can get most of the way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions with energy efficiency policies, which have more public support. The Colorado Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) has written a climate action plan that will be coming out soon. Energy efficiency is a key part of the plan.

Over the last four years, the state has passed more than 50 energy-related legislations. Those policies and programs got a big boost from the $180 million in Recovery funds GEO received.

Broad renewable energy deployment is still hampered by lack of information, capital and services. GEO’s RechargeColorado program is the one stop shop to get information to commercial and residential energy users. Starting Oct. 27 Recharge Colorado will launch a marketing blitz to push out the program’s available funding. There is a lot of money left for appliances and insulation, and for renewable energy systems, as well.

To address the financing issues, GEO is working with the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority to offer retrofitting loans to small businesses. Green Business Loans are available for starting up manufacturing operations to produce energy efficiency and renewable energy equipment. Homeowners can access Clean Energy Financing for homeowners to fund energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds are available to fund projects of $50 million or more. The state legislature has approved the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, but it is on hold at the Federal level.

Many Recovery-funded services have been launched and are going strong. Energy performance contracting is successfully helping schools and public buildings improve energy efficiency where bond issues can’t be passed. GEO is working with local entities to tighten building codes. Although new home starts in the state are flat, Energy Star for Homes has been going well. The Main Street Efficiency program is building capacity in local communities to improve energy efficiency in rural areas. Also, an Industrial Challenge is calling on the state’s 100 largest energy users to reduce their consumption this year.

GEO has released the Renewable Energy Development Infrastructure Report listing strategies for the electric sector. A key finding is that energy efficiency can help utilities avoid building new generation.

Federal grants have been a great source of direct funding for cities and counties developing their own sustainability plans. For 52 rural communities, 18 community energy coordinators have been hired. Most of these are nonprofits that provide technical assistance to rural communities. People are more open to addressing water, waste and energy issues.

The city of Boulder received a $25 million Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant to partner with Denver and Garfield counties to replicate programs that upgrade building efficiency. Another $5 million EECBG went to Eagle to do the same with Pitkin and Gunnison counties.

Going forward, the state of the economy continues to drive change. People are also relatively concerned for the environment, the governor has shown leadership and public/private partnerships have been very productive.

However, to reach GEO goals, the qualified workforce needs to grow. Rural cooperatives are still trying to figure out how the goals fit into their mission.

Even so, the conversation has advanced a lot in just a few years.

APPA Academy debuts this week

APPA is launching the APPA Academy, public power’s complete resource for professional education and certification. Through a variety of delivery methods—live, in-depth education courses, in-house training programs, conferences, webinars, list servers, online courses and work force development partnerships—the APPA Academy will help electric utility employees stay abreast of rapidly moving industry technologies and regulatory requirements while providing an opportunity for them to meet their yearly training goals and certification requirements in formats and price ranges that suit their needs.

In addition to providing utility employees with the knowledge they need to perform their jobs at the highest level, various education courses, in-house training, conferences, certificate programs and webinars in the APPA Academy meet the criteria for providing:

  • CEcD Hours – needed by Certified Economic Developers to maintain certification;
  • Continuing Education Units (CEUs) – required by many professions to maintain certification;
  • Continuing Legal Education credits (CLEs) – needed by lawyers to practice law within a particular jurisdiction;
  • Continuing Professional Education credits (CPEs) – required by CPAs to maintain licensure;
  • HCRI Hours – required by Human Resources professionals to maintain certification; and
  • Professional Development Hours (PDHs) – needed by engineers to maintain licensure.

Additionally, when employees participate in APPA Academy offerings, utilities earn points toward their Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) designation.