Gene Wilson first learned about solar energy while studying architecture at Clemson University in the late 1970s, around the same time President Jimmy Carter installed solar thermal panels on the White House.
“I came through school when we were going through one of the energy crises. I can remember having to sit in a line to get gasoline,” said Wilson, who is now a solar instructor at Greenville Technical College in South Carolina. “I learned about solar and said, 'This is what we need to do.’”
Wilson's interest was piqued, but it would be a couple of decades until he could fully immerse himself. After failing to convince the firms he worked for to incorporate solar in designs, and then sitting through a poorly designed 1987 solar class that left him disenchanted, Wilson picked up certifications in the early 2000s. That led him to Greenville Technical College in South Carolina, where he worked to get the solar training program started in 2008.
Greenville Tech offers both continuing education and academically focused classes in solar, including an 18-month Solar Technician Certificate program and individual classes that can lead to a North American Board of Energy Professionals accreditation. The PV classes are the most popular.
Since the program started, enrollment has been sporadic. But a $25,000 partnership announced this month between solar company Cypress Creek Renewables and Greenville Tech will help support the program through scholarships and curriculum development. The partnership -- engineered by America's sixth-largest utility-scale solar developer -- is likely the first of its kind in the industry.
The Cypress Creek deal supplements a $1.5 billion investment in 80 solar projects across the state totaling 2 gigawatts. “We’re looking to build a lot of solar in South Carolina and want to proactively invest in the state’s energy workforce to ensure good business outcomes for us and good economic outcomes for the state,” said Cameron Bard, Cypress Creek’s director of operations.
The training partnership -- as well as the gigawatts' worth of solar projects -- could buoy a program that’s struggled to maintain enough students and make South Carolina a top PV market. According to the latest data from GTM Research, the Palmetto State moved from 36th to 20th in the country for solar PV installations from 2015 to 2016. In Q2 of 2017, the state ranked 13th.
Climbing further up the rankings will be hard without more workers. “They’re recognizing they don’t have the workforce here that they need to build the units they’re planning to build," said Trish Jerman, manager of energy programs at the South Carolina Energy Office, speaking about developers in the state.
The program at Greenville Tech is designed to change that, offering a direct pipeline from the program to Cypress Creek’s solar installs. “We’re trying to build a big tent industry that’s able to take on workers from other energy sectors that may be looking for new growth opportunities, and ultimately to position solar as part of the nation’s growth toward cleaner energy,” said Bard.
Offering that demand may be key to revitalizing the program, which has yet to see a boom in enrollment. Training programs at other colleges throughout the state have also floundered, even as solar industry employment expanded by 24 percent since 2015. There are now double the number of solar workers as coal workers.
“It’s not been easy to keep the training program going,” said Joy Finch, head of the Environmental, Occupational Health and Safety Department at Greenville Tech. “We’ve been getting enough people…but it hadn’t been having the interest we expected.”
Ken Stewart, president and CEO of Easley Electric Incorporated, took a course in the spring. Although Stewart said solar is “probably one of the most profitable things” he’s done for his business, his class had under 15 students. His company now certifies solar installations and helps solar installers with electric permits, in addition to its other electrical work.
There may be a disconnect between training and actual project development. When the program started, “We were ahead of our time," said Jerman.
It may also relate to the culture of the state. The Greenville area has a low unemployment rate of 3.5 percent. The largest industries in the area are trade, transportation and utilities. Many in the region touch the energy sector, but may be unwilling to invest in career retraining because of professional stability or lack of familiarity with renewables.
“South Carolina is a little slow in adopting forward-thinking activities, and solar would be one of those things,” said Wilson. “South Carolina is not one to step out and be the first. Typically, we’re three, four, five years behind North Carolina in advancements.”
The struggle to train enough workers to grow South Carolina’s nascent market echoes larger challenges in the modernizing energy industry. In Appalachia, for instance, Trump’s election has given some traditional coal-producing areas hope that a resurgence is on the horizon. Few coal-producing states have invested in solar and the political polarization swirling around the so-called “War on Coal” may make retraining even more unappealing. Cypress Creek’s model of putting money into both projects and training could be a way to inspire enough confidence in workers that renewables present long-lasting opportunities.
South Carolina solar did get a noticeable boost in recent years with the 2014 passage of Act 236, signed by then-Governor Nikki Haley. The law established net-metering rules through 2020.
Bruce Wood, founder and CEO at Sunstore Solar in nearby Grear, started his company in 1976. Since the legislation passed, the state has “seen a tremendous increase” in solar activity, Wood said.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research rank South Carolina 10th in projected solar growth over the next five years.
Now that labor needs are growing, Greenville Tech is uniquely positioned to take advantage. It’s the only technical college in the state still teaching specialized solar installation classes that originally received stimulus funding. “We’re starting to see a boom in the industry that we kind of thought was coming several years ago,” said Joy Finch.
South Carolina has hurdles ahead. The Section 201 trade case, of course, presents serious uncertainties for developers. While it's unclear how President Trump could rule on tariffs, the solar industry is warning that thousands of jobs could be lost as demand spirals downward. (Cypress Creek says it expects to create 10,000 construction jobs in coming years with its current portfolio of projects.)
The state is also nearing a cap on net metering, which could present challenges to growth.
“We may become a victim of our success,” said Wood, referencing the state’s 2 percent net metering cap. Wood said negotiating a higher generation limit will be vital for expanding solar.
However, after the failure of the V.C. Summer Plant, Wood believes more utilities will turn to solar. Last week, South Carolina Electric & Gas announced that large-scale solar will replace some of the generation that would have come from the nuclear facility.
“Utilities here have seen they can deploy capacity pretty quick where they need it in a very reasonable time and at a known cost,” Wood said. “I think that’s where Cypress Creek sees their opportunity."
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect Cypress Creek's ranking as the sixth-largest utility-scale solar developer in the U.S.