Albuquerque Is Wiring Up Millennials to Work With the Sun

With its plan to source all city energy needs from renewable power by 2022, Albuquerque, a winner of the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, is also jump-starting its solar workforce.

Workers secure solar panels to a rooftop during a SolarCity residential installation in Albuquerque.

Credit: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Set on a high desert plain below the picturesque Sandia Mountains, the city of Albuquerque is well positioned to tap energy from the sun. Same goes for most of New Mexico, which, as of last year, had nearly 800 megawatts’ worth of the shiny panels installed, powering more than 200,000 homes. This might explain why the installation of photovoltaic solar panels ranks as the fastest growing new jobs across the entire state.

Albuquerque’s determination to increase its reliance on renewable power is one of the reasons that last fall it was chosen as one of 25 Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge winners. Now, it’s looking to take its efforts a step further by developing a solar energy field to fuel all future city governmental operations. Officials in Albuquerque hope to meet 100 percent of municipal energy needs through renewable sources by 2022.

The city is racing to reach that ambitious goal, in part by training a new workforce. Currently the solar industry in New Mexico employs more than 2,000 workers—a number that keeps growing and is expected to reach 6,800 by 2030, according to an American Jobs Project Report. The main difficulty right now, says solar educator Janet Hughes, is to find enough workers to step into these jobs. As a result, she and other renewable energy educators are seeing increased interest in their own services.

Hughes is an expert in the alternative energy field and over the past four years has been leading courses on the mechanics of sustainability at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) in Albuquerque. “There’s a lot of energy and optimism here right now,” she says. “I think solar is a fun industry to be part of.” She herself worked several years as a contractor wiring homes and businesses in Colorado, Louisiana, and Texas before turning fully to solar in 2004. “There was just a backlog of people waiting to get solar systems on their homes and on businesses, too, that year,” she says.

Through classes like the four that Hughes teaches at CNM (three online and one lab), her students are learning how to build complete solar systems and attempting to memorize photovoltaic electrical codes—more than 300 rules made by several agencies to lower the risk of fires and otherwise ensure a safe and functional installation process. After all, there are many important precautions to take in this field, Hughes notes—like “how to protect yourself from a falling off a roof,” to name one.

The ultimate goal for her students, says Hughes, is basically “to plug each one into our grid here.” Already, she’s seeing results in funneling students into the industry.

“I decided to take [Hughes’s class] after studying conservation and regional planning, then realizing the best place to focus on the change I wanted to see was to actually do the work on the ground,” said recent CNM graduate Matt Bernauer. The former bike mechanic now works for Affordable Solar, the biggest solar company in town and in the state, and notes that his experience has given him a leg up in the field. “The mechanical attention to detail and understanding of nuts and bolts transfers over from my bike work,” he says.

One of the more exciting placements for millennial solar workers is at the Facebook Data Center, which opened in February in nearby Los Lunas. It will employ about 50 solar workers, Hughes says, and will be one of eight different solar and wind projects Facebook has committed to in the state, adding a total of 396 megawatts of green energy to New Mexico’s shared grid, powering more than 300,000 homes. That marks a new level of renewable energy being generated in the state, Hughes notes.

Solar mirrors at the National Solar Thermal Test Facility in Albuquerque
Credit: Randy Montoya/Flickr

In fact, New Mexico is now ranked 16th in the nation for the production of solar energy, up from 21st last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In 2017 the state also ramped up wind production, and wind turbine service technician is now the second fastest–growing occupation here, trailing only the solar photovoltaic industry. Wind service techs in the state need post-secondary certificates to do their work, but the solar power industry requires just a high school diploma, with focused classes like what Hughes supplies at CNM providing an added boost.

“This is really a construction job,” says Galina Kofchock, CFO of Osceola Energy, a solar business in the area trying to find its workforce. “You need general knowledge of how to build things, and of course you’ll have to bend, squat, lift—with a little extra electrical knowledge on the types of wirings and codes needed for this industry.” On average, solar installers in New Mexico earn $42,920 per year, considerably higher than the $28,000 per year average income of the state’s construction or mechanical workers.

The economic benefit should help spur the transition to renewable energy jobs. And in the face of federal inaction on climate change, this state-level momentum propelling the renewable energy revolution is increasingly important. “Washington has been trying to drag us backwards,” said Michael Bloomberg in a statement underscoring the significance of the American Cities Climate Challenge. Through the collective actions of the 25 winners, including the solar commitments made in Albuquerque, “America really is moving forward on climate change as cities continue to lead where Washington has not.”

Notably, solar panel installer is not the prime new occupation only in New Mexico right now. It’s also the fastest-growing job in the quintessentially sunny states of California, Hawaii, and Florida—and in North Carolina, Missouri, Minnesota, and New Jersey, too. Moreover, wind turbine technicians have the fastest growing jobs in Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa—proof that clean energy is on the rise all across the map.

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