April 2020 was a transformative month for the commonwealth’s energy future. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act — a sweeping bill that is fundamentally reshaping how our state sources its power in the decades ahead.
“These new clean energy laws propel Virginia to leadership among the states in fighting climate change,” Northam said, while also referencing Virginia joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. “They advance environmental justice and help create clean energy jobs. In Virginia, we are proving that a clean environment and a strong economy go hand in hand.”
The VCEA became law roughly 30 days into the COVID-19 pandemic. Per a release from the governor’s office, the legislation set out to achieve some broad goals: establish renewable portfolio and energy efficiency standards, while advancing offshore wind and solar projects. Nearly all coal-fired power plants have to shut down by the end of 2024, while major electricity suppliers — Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power — are on a ramp toward being carbon-free by 2050.
The glue to achieving all of those objectives is job training. Eighteen months into battling this public health crisis, we see numerous industries struggling to recruit workers. But as a Bloomberg piece in June noted, the push for “ambitious growth” in the years to come magnifies the need for a robust renewable energy workforce. The commonwealth’s plan for a cleaner future won’t happen without developing a new generation of talent.
Industry leaders in other states sounded the alarm in July at a House small business subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill. Per a report by Inc. magazine, Leticia Colón de Mejias, CEO of Energy Efficiencies Solutions in Windsor, Connecticut, said procuring qualified employees is a top challenge, as is a dearth of programs that better align workers’ skills with evolving technologies.
James Hasselbeck, director of operations at ReVision Energy in Portland, Maine, noted his company has its own training program, the Inc. report added. But without trade education initiatives in schools, an information gap exists where students don’t always know about available opportunities.
A Virginia Conservation Network brief localized these obstacles, arguing that as the VCEA is carried out, we have to “work to ensure that Virginia has the needed workforce to meet clean energy targets.” Three proposed avenues for doing so were tax incentives for corporate retraining programs, green career and technical education dual enrollment programs for high school students, and grants for community colleges that yield high enrollment in related disciplines.
If we heed the advice of Colón de Mejias and Hasselbeck, state and national elected leaders and advocates need to do more than state these ideas. They need to constantly remind workers about the pathways to acquiring these jobs.
Two current examples stand out in Virginia. In the solar field, 20 organizations came together in October 2019 to launch the Solar Hands-On Instructional Network of Excellence program. Housed at Southside Virginia Community College, the SHINE Solar Ready 101 curriculum is geared toward narrowing the divide in job supply and demand.
The hope is the SVCC pilot will expand to other colleges in the commonwealth — and for good reason. In May of this year, the Solar Energy Industries Association published its annual National Solar Jobs Census for 2020. The document said that while the industry is on pace to have 400,000 workers by 2030, at least 900,000 will be needed by 2035 to reach President Joe Biden’s goal for 100% clean energy that year. Strong, persistent messaging matters here.
In the offshore wind sector, Northam signed legislation in June 2020 that will pave the way for projects in the commonwealth. The latest development came in August, when the Port of Virginia agreed to lease part of the Portsmouth Marine Terminal to Dominion Energy. That partnership will help fast-track infrastructure for a 2,600-megawatt endeavor powering up to 660,000 homes.
“This announcement is yet another milestone toward making Virginia the national leader in offshore wind power,” Northam said in an August release. “The commonwealth and Dominion Energy are standing together to promote clean energy, reduce carbon emissions, create jobs and build a new American industry on the east coast.”
All of that requires a commitment to education. In July, The Virginian-Pilot profiled how Dominion has worked with institutions including Tidewater Community College, Old Dominion University and the Mid-Atlantic Wind Training Alliance to conceive and execute applicable course offerings. In addition to wind turbine technicians, there is a need for electricians, welders, climbers, maritime workers and elevator technicians, the report said.
“The first thing is awareness,” John Larson, director of public policy and economic development at Dominion, told The Pilot. “Get their interest, and then get their engagement to embark upon what they need to do to move forward to enter a clean energy career.”
The time is now to build awareness in as many corners of Virginia as possible. The commonwealth’s plan for a cleaner future won’t happen without developing a new generation of talent.
— Chris Gentilviso