Betting solar energy will take off: Career changers thankful for federally funded classes - Article, Office of College Advancement

By Jondi Gumz.

Friday, September 14, 2012—Reprinted from Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Ohlone students outside Monterey Bay Exploration Center.Mike Arenson leads his Ohlone College Solar Design and Sales Training students on a solar tour in Santa Cruz on Tuesday, which included a stop at the Monterey Bay National marine Sanctuary Exploration Center. —Photo by Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel.

Santa Cruz—Alicia Cabello, a UC Santa Cruz sociology alum, is building a new career as a social media strategist after starting out in mental health.

Paula Burdick, who lives in Bonny Doon, worked as a project manager before switching into the energy savings field. Joe Davis of Pleasanton worked in real estate before taking time off to be a dad; now he wants to get back into sales.

These are three of the 25 people taking classes at Ohlone College in Fremont, part of the Home Energy Retrofit Occupations program funded by a $2.5 million community based job training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The classes, taught by Santa Cruz solar energy specialist Mike Arenson, aim to prepare people for sales careers in the solar industry. From a show of hands, most students in his class are changing careers.

Tuesday, he took them on a tour of Santa Cruz solar installations including Ecology Action, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center and Arenson's Seabright-Broadway neighborhood, where four homes generate enough energy to power two city blocks.

Outside City Hall, Arenson said city officials took his advice to replace one section of the tile roof with shingles to accommodate solar panels. Even with the re-roofing expense, the city saved money.

According to Ross Clark, the city's climate action coordinator, renewable energy projects are saving the city more than $620,000 a year, with the most savings from "digester gas cogeneration" at the wastewater treatment plant.

City residents have installed more than 500 solar systems, which Clark said saves more than $360,000 a year.

So far, 34 solar permits including one for hot water have been issued this year, compared to 44 including four for hot water last year and 36 in 2010, according to city building official Mark Ellis.

Clark said the California First program will launch in two weeks, allowing businesses in 14 counties to finance solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity and solar hot water heaters on their property tax bills. The program will be open to nonprofits if they own a building and to landlords of multifamily housing with more than five units.

"This will open up a lot of opportunities," Arenson said, noting interest in commercial solar projects cooled after federal tax credits expired Dec. 31.

Tax credits for residential solar projects remain in effect until Dec. 31, 2016.

A dozen solar companies based in the county employ 45 people, according to David Mirrione, the new director of Workforce Investment Board Santa Cruz County.

Three years ago, the solar industry was excited about PACE, Property Assessed Clean Energy, a program to finance residential solar systems with a loan paid off along with the homeowner's semi-annual property tax bills. The idea was to make solar systems, which can cost $16,000, more affordable.

But Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises that own half the mortgages in the U.S., wanted to be paid first if homeowners defaulted on home loans. They didn't want solar payments in the way.

"Unless we get Congressional action, it's not going anywhere," Clark said.

Cabello, 41, appreciated the opportunity after being interviewed by a solar company that didn't have money for training.

"I saw an ad for a training class," she said. "It's what I needed to get my foot in the door."

Burdick, 55, complimented Arenson's instruction.

She had to find a new future after the 2001 economic collapse. She worked at Central Coast Energy Services in Watsonville as a crew leader and has been canvassing companies for PG&E.

"I feel like I'm on my way," she said. "I'm poised to grow with solar," she said.

At A Glance

For Homeowners & Businesses

WHAT: California Solar Initiative rebate program funded by utility ratepayers.

GOALS: To install 1,940 megawatts of solar generation capacity with a budget of $2.167 million between 2007 and 2016 and to install 200,000 solar hot water systems with a budget of $250 million between 2010 and 2017.

For Businesses

WHAT: California First financing program for clean energy projects for commercial and multifamily property owners; includes solar energy and water, windows, lighting, refrigeration, bathrooms, HVAC, cool roofs.

TERMS: Payback of up to 20 years through a line item on the property tax bill, 'lower' interest rate, offered through California Statewide Communities Development Authority sponsored by California Association of Counties and League of California Cities.

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Related Links at Ohlone College

  • Home Energy Retrofit Occupations (HERO) [page deleted after completion of grant]