Lauren Robinson | Energy News Network
Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act included funding to make solar training more accessible to lower-income residents.
There was an energy about the 11 students gathered on a sunny December Saturday outside a South Side Chicago construction shop.
Today, they’d put on their work gloves and protective glasses and put to the test all that they had learned in the introductory solar-energy course they’d taken at Olive-Harvey Community College. Today, they would construct an eight-panel, self-ballasted array that, if connected to an energy grid, would produce 2.3 kilowatts of power.
“At 2.3, it won’t power someone’s home, but it might be the size of a system that fits on someone’s rooftop or residential house,” said Robert Hattier, a business representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134. But this system would both come to life and get broken down in a span of about four hours, when all the parts would be carted back into storage until another round of students is ready to learn the process.
Hattier, along with other IBEW-affiliated electricians, was tasked last semester with teaching one of the first community college-level solar classes funded by the Future Energy Jobs Act. The majority of the students enrolled in the program at Olive-Harvey were recruited by environmental justice group People for Community Recovery and live in Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens public housing complex. Other students learned of the program through Dunbar Vocational Career Academy High School.
Advocates believe the 2016 energy law and dropping prices for solar installations can help make Illinois a leader in solar energy — and that schools are a key place to start. The Illinois Solar Schools program funded by ComEd introduces K-12 students to solar energy; meanwhile, funding under FEJA has made the training more accessible to a population who could benefit more immediately from the job opportunities: community college students, especially residents of low-income regions like Chicago’s South Side.