Cypress Creek Renewables is growing. It’s the nation’s fifth-largest developer and it brought online the most utility-scale solar projects last year, according to GTM Research.
With hundreds of megawatts in capacity expected in 2018, hiring skilled workers to build it all remains a key focus.
“A big piece of last year was finding the workforce to come work with us,” said Jaime Carlson, executive vice president of operations and capital planning.
To that end, Cypress Creek is supporting a total of five solar training programs at community colleges across the country.
Its first partnership at Greenville Technical College in South Carolina launched this fall. Since then Cypress Creek has offered between $10,000 and $25,000 to programs in New York’s Hudson Valley, at Cape Fear in North Carolina, in northeastern Illinois and most recently in Flint, Michigan.
Alongside the training programs, Cypress Creek is working on projects in all five markets. The developer wants the employees to support those projects, as well as future ones to come.
“It really stems from us feeling a responsibility to the energy industry to be part of the solution,” said Carlson. “As we see changing economics and trends, we really want to be part of making sure there are transition solutions for everyone.”
Cypress Creek selected the programs by assessing where the company has plans for growth, where the solar industry is blossoming, and where high unemployment or a transitioning energy market makes retraining attractive.
In South Carolina, for instance, the failure of the VC Summer nuclear expansion left an opening for the solar industry. Since Cypress Creek's partnership with Greenville Tech started, 30 percent of new students have come from the fossil fuel or nuclear industries. Two students, Carlson said, specifically cited the termination of VC Summer as a reason for their interest in the program.
In areas where traditional fuels are facing challenges, Carlson said Cypress Creek wants to avoid “an us-versus-them equation.”
Most of Cypress Creek’s partner programs are located in counties with unemployment rates above the national average, which has hovered around 4 percent for the last seven months. In Genesee County, Michigan, unemployment in 2017 was 5.8 percent. In Kankakee, Illinois, it was 5.2 percent. In New Hanover County, North Carolina, home to Cape Fear Community College, the difference is less marked. The county had a 2017 unemployment rate of 4.2 percent.
North Carolina also has a developed solar industry, but that hasn’t yet brought a wave of employment, according the school’s lead instructor and Director of its Sustainability Technologies program, John Wojciechowski. He said the solar market in southeastern North Carolina remains more regional, with the economy in the area relying on sectors like real estate, tourism and construction.
Since Cape Fear’s program began in 2008, the same year as Greenville’s, Wojciechowski said interest levels have varied. But he does see it gaining solid footing.
“Enrollment always kind of ebbs and flows a little bit, but we’ve definitely had an uptick in enrollment in the past few years,” said Wojciechowski. “It took us a couple of years to get up to speed and get all the pieces in place, and we seem to be doing pretty well right now.”
But because the solar industry is still maturing, and to make sure students have options post-training, the program also includes skills in holistic building, infrastructure and project management.
“When we were developing this program, I couldn’t just put all my eggs in one industry basket,” said Wojciechowski. “If it dried up, I’d have no pathways for my students.”
Making sure students have viable job opportunities after training is a main consideration for Cypress Creek. Carlson said the company wants students to have exit opportunities once they complete the program. They’re looking into bringing in other solar industry partners as well.
“The last thing we want to do is train them up in an industry where they are looking for a job,” said Carlson.
Wojciechowski said it can be difficult to figure out where to “plug in” with the industry, but he’s placed several students with local rooftop installers and he hopes to get more students hired on at national companies. His initial connection to Cypress Creek was actually through a former student who’s a field technician with the firm.
“I’d love it to be double or triple what we’re doing now. It all just depends on the solar industry remaining strong, with the students in the pipeline at the right time in the right place,” said Wojciechowski. “I’m excited to send more students into solar and into the large-scale solar industry — that’s really the key with Cypress Creek. Our local solar rooftop companies can only take so many people.”