A green line of work

Jon Lambert

Driving down the road between Northern Vermont and Ithaca, New York I drive by several solar farms. Like anyone else, I take interest in them but have never put much thought into the work required to get them there. Recently, everyone is talking about the blue collar jobs that aren’t being filled. Surely the solar farms didn’t grow out of the ground. There was labor involved in their installation, the blue collared kind. Men and women driving backhoes and skid steers to level out the ground, using hammers, drills, screwdrivers and the like to secure the panels in place. Electricians must have been involved in the running of electrical cable, the panel boxes, and meters. Why is no one talking about the green collared worker?

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With the rising popularity of solar, there has got to be a demand for people skilled in the installation of the solar panels. Both large-scale solar farms and small home installations require training and skill to do. With my focus set on the Ithaca area, I called Annalise Kukor, an energy educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension to find out about solar projects in the area. My goal was to get an estimate of on-going solar projects in Ithaca, future projects, and job growth in the area. Annalise’s position includes running solar campaigns, educating people on rooftop and standalone solar units, connecting people with local installers, presentations in the southern tier of New York, educating people on the solar landscape of New York and how the process of solar installation works and how it will work for them. She works mostly with local residents, third-party non-bias sources, and non-profits.

“What exactly do you do?”

“I work as the cooperative extension energy educator. I educate people on solar campaigns, rooftop and standalone solar panels, and local installers. I do presentations in the southern tier, discuss solar landscape and how the process works and how it will work for them. I work with local residents mostly and third-party non-bias source or non-profit.”

“Are there any solar projects currently in the works right now?”

“Always, in recent years - rooftop is always happening, community solar has taken off. Lanovus - the first in the state to do installs has been busy. Companies are putting leases on land and buildings. Quite a few more leases are done than solar farms built, but there are at least 6 farms builts”

“How long did it take to approve these plans? If none in your experience how long would it take?”

“Rooftop, either residential or business is quick. The day that they do a visit to the day the switch gets put on can be 2 months - 6 months. For community solar, it can be longer. Permitting and connection, taxes, negotiating a lease with landowners. This typically takes a year and a half or more. “

“What kind of obstacles could you see hindering possible advancements in this area?”

“Lack of investment, low interconnection, the value of distributed energy resources effects community solar. Solar Kwh hour laws have been proposed that make hours less valuable. Figuring out new regulations takes time for developers.”

“If you were the mayor of Ithaca what would you be doing to improve Ithaca and its use of renewable energies? “

“Be vocal about it.”

“Is it worth it the investment for Colleges and towns to use solar power?”

“Absolutely, towns are tricky but colleges I would highly recommend. It piggybacks over time and it is way cleaner. More control, tax incentives, towns aren't in control of their own grids besides making it easier for permitting. “

“Are there any plans to expand Ithaca’s solar properties?

“Absolutely. It is always a goal.”

“How suited is Ithaca for solar installation and/or power abundance, given geography and climate?”

“It has a lot less with geography and climate and more with regulation. Our climate does well with solar because of how it is credited on the grid. Germany gets much less sun than we do and they still use it. People with rooftop solar do just fine and tend to make money over time. It's more the legislation that makes it viable, and the grid storing that energy so they can roll over summer production in the winter. Federal and state tax incentives make it financially viable. We actually do better than Florida because of our tax incentives.”

“How often are preventative maintenance checks and services performed on solar panels?”

“Very minimal maintenance, most installers would say not to bother scraping snow off them. It isn’t worth the work/risk. They work fine through the snow. There are no moving parts and not much to do in terms of maintenance. 10-12 years in the inverter usually is the first piece to go. Ground mountain panels just need a mowing around them.”

“Do you see this job field expanding in the near future?”

“Yes, There is a report done by the NY state energy and resource authority, it has been climbing over the last few years as long as state and federal incentives stay how they are.”

As you can see from my interview with Annalise Kukor, solar has a good foothold in the area. New projects are always in the works. As the demand for solar grows, which it currently is, there will continue to be green collared job growth. The men and women who do this work are a very important part in paving our way to a more sustainable future. Annalise has a crucial hand in the growth of green collar jobs. By educating the community of the viability and benefits of solar, she helps people make the change to a more sustainable energy source.