Solar Flair: Electrical journeymen, apprentices are learning to power the future

Nearing the end of his five-year electrician apprenticeship program, Josh Tate knows that to survive as an electrical worker in the 21st century, he’ll have to think solar.

“It will be a necessity,” Tate said. “Once it gets there, I hope to have my foot in the door.”

Tate, who lives in Bellingham, is one of 222 apprentices learning trade skills from the Northwest Washington Electrical Industry Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee.

More than 60 of the apprentices at the committee’s training facility, located at 306 Anderson Road in Mount Vernon, are from Whatcom County.

The committee is a nonprofit labor-management training program established by the Local Union No. 191 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Cascade Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association. It provides training for journeymen, apprentices and others in the electrical industry.

In February, the committee finished construction on a solar carport equipped with a pair of electric-vehicle charging stations.

Josh Gau, an instructor at the facility, said the carport helps his students see an application of solar power and other alternative energy sources firsthand.

“They get to see how it actually functions,” Gau said. “You kind of see the end result first.”

Tate decided to become an apprentice after he married and realized life would be easier if he had a solid, high-paying job. Journeymen can earn up to $40 an hour, according to the committee.

His grandfather had been an electrician, and Tate said he liked the idea of a career building and fixing things, rather than one spent sitting in an office all day.

“I figured I wanted a hands-on, quality job,” Tate said.

With his training, he said he hopes to eventually start a business developing applications for alternative energy sources, including solar power.

Ryan Bradt, the committee’s assistant training director and an instructor at the facility, said future developments in alternative energy could have significant impact on the electrical industry.

Work has been hard to come by over the past few years as commercial and residential construction lags due to a poor economy, Bradt said.

However, solar power and electric vehicle technology could eventually provide new avenues for journeymen to find jobs.

As alternative energy catches on, which Bradt predicts will be inevitable, there should be high demand for professionals trained to work with these new power sources.

“I think that when you look at electric vehicles from our standpoint, we’re really excited,” Bradt said. “For us, as electricians, the future looks good.”

The facility’s carport, which was built in its front parking lot, can charge two electric vehicles at the same time. The charging stations were manufactured by the California company Coulomb Technologies, a leading producer of electric vehicle products.

Drivers pay $1 for each hour of charging time, with a $2 minimum charge each visit.

The stations can provide two levels of output: one charges at 120 volts, roughly equivalent to a standard electrical outlet, while the other puts out 240.

A 2012 Chevrolet Volt, one of the more recent electric cars on the market, can fully charge a depleted battery after about 3-4 hours at 240 volts, according to Roy Mureno, a salesperson at the Blade Chevrolet dealership in Mount Vernon.

The slanted roof of the carport is constructed out of 20 clouded glass solar modules designed by Silicon Energy, based in Marysville.

The structure, which can produce up to 3,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, will supply power to the training facility and can also channel surplus energy into the local power grid.

Silicon Energy was the state’s first certified producer of photovoltaic systems, used to convert sun rays into usable energy.

The company’s Cascade photovoltaic system is pioneering a new shift in the design of solar modules; one that values safety, stability and design aesthetic over thrift.

Silicon’s president and CEO Gary Shaver said the current trend in the solar world is for producers to create modules that are cheap. This has led to companies rolling out products nearly indistinguishable from one another, he said.

It has also lulled buyers into complacency over selecting the best solar panels to install on their homes or businesses, Shaver said.

People need to research products beforehand, he said, not just buy whatever is cheap.

“We really need to make sure the products going into the market are durable and safe,” Shaver said. “For people who are thinking solar, they should ask questions.”

Shaver said the carport’s combination of solar energy and electric vehicle charging  serves as a prime example of the benefits of alternative energy sources.

“When you make that connection, the economic arguments are just fantastic,” he said. “I think it demonstrates that very nice. We were thrilled when [the training committee] said they wanted to do something like that. It really demonstrates the future.”

Fueled by federal incentives and low-cost manufacturing, the U.S. solar industry has grown dramatically over the last decade.

In 2001, fewer than 100,000 solar modules shipped from American producers, according to a January 2012 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2010, that number was more than 2.5 million.

Bradt said it’s fascinating to see how fast the new technology is taking hold.

“I think overall, it’s an exciting time,” he said. “For me, it finally feels like the future’s here.”



Photos by Brian Corey


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