Green Collar Labor Shortage

by kespeland on February 19, 2008


Greening your home, using renewable energy, and lowering your utility bills might sound appealing. But finding someone to help you and being able to afford it might make you think twice. Mark Isaacs is building condominiums downtown Louisville that will use only energy from the sun and earth for heating and cooling. Touring a visitor around the project in progress, he points to a jumble of tubes.

“The eight tubes above our head are the geothermal heating and cooling…”

The building’s inside is still just a shell of studs and wires. But soon, energy tapped from underground thermal sources will circulate water through those tubes. High tech awnings will appear over windows to collect solar heat for power. And extra insulation will be packed between double walls to keep the condos energy-efficient. But three years ago, Isaacs says he struggled to find people who knew how to build like this. He even sent some of his team to school.

“Over the past three years we’ve developed internal expertise where we not only know how to size and install the geothermal heat pumps. It’s been a three-year process of developing a skill set and getting very comfortable with that.”

It may seem as though putting some solar panels on your house, for example, or paying a contractor to do it wouldn’t be so tough. And technically, it isn’t. But Kentucky Solar Partnership’s Andy McDonald points out other barriers.

“One of the barriers historically has been there’s not a lot of installers, not lot of trained professionals. But another barrier has been that the market hasn’t been very strong. And part of that is because the cost of electricity and natural gas has been historically very cheap. But that’s changing.”

McDonald says there aren’t a lot of trained professionals because there’s not a lot of training.

“Apart from the workshops we offer, North Carolina offers regular workshops. Otherwise you might have to go to Wisconsin, or Colorado, or Florida.”

And if you do learn how to install…say… a solar water heating system…or a wind energy turbine, in this state you may struggle to find customers. Jeremy Coxon runs southern Indiana-based SunWind Power Systems.

“We work in two states, Indiana and Kentucky, and we do that basically to stay in business. And so we have to travel quite a bit and a lot of other contactors are doing the same thing.”

Coxon says that lots of new renewable energy contractors have gone into business over the last couple of years. But they’re still competing for few customers. Why? Coxon says part of the reason might be the lack of tax incentives for homeowners who install systems. But he cautions those incentives aren’t always the right way to fuel the market. Take, for example, New Jersey.

“What happened in New Jersey was some really fantastic incentives. A bunch of installers came into the market, a lot of people installed systems, and then the incentives essentially dried up at the end of last year. There’s no market. So these companies are laying off and going out of business.”

So Kentucky’s renewable energy, or “green-collar,” workforce faces a conundrum: risk getting into the business now while the market isn’t so hot? Or wait for the state legislature to introduce some lasting incentives? Architect and green builder Mark Isaacs thinks incentives could help. But so could bigger investments.

“I think if we wait for the market to grow at what I’m going to call a ‘mom and pop’ kind of scale and level. What is needed are developments of scale…”

Developments that will require trained workers, who may or may not be available. The green labor shortage has caught Washington’s attention. The 2007 energy bill directs the Department of Labor to establish a renewable energy worker training program and give grants to states to develop them.

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