The recent ribbon-cutting ceremony at Wise Primary School for a new rooftop solar installation was the result of years of effort and the latest marker of success in the effort to diversify the economy of seven coalfield counties in Virginia.
Estimates are that solar installations on Wise County schools will save the system $7 million to $8 million in electricity costs over their lifespans — savings that will benefit local taxpayers. But the effort is about more than clean energy and saving money.Eight apprentices from the new Solar Workforce Accelerator program got real-world experience working on the installation. This partnership among Mountain Empire Community College, the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia and two solar companies, GOT Electric and Secure Futures, is helping to train a new generation of Southwest Virginia energy workers.
The apprenticeship program is funded by a grant from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority. The project also received funding from the Appalachian Solar Finance Fund, which has been instrumental in this and similar projects, helping public institutions, churches, nonprofit organizations and others with grants and technical assistance for solar projects.
“I want to see our young people be able to find meaningful employment that can support them and their families, and I want to see those opportunities here in Southwest Virginia,” said Greg Mullins, retired Wise County Schools superintendent, at the ribbon-cutting. “These solar jobs that we have created through this program take us closer to that goal.”
Appalachian Voices is a co-convenor of the Solar Workgroup, a collaboration of nonprofit groups, community action agencies, colleges, state agencies, planning district commissions and others working to develop renewable energy in the region to help create jobs and new economic opportunities.
“This system, and the ones like it on other schools in Wise and Lee counties are a real symbol of Southwest Virginia being an energy leader for generations to come,” said Matthew McFadden, project coordinator with Secure Futures Solar. “But the real praise needs to go to our apprentices. I’m so proud of these young people, who did the installation work and launched their careers in the solar and electric industry right here in Wise County.”The Wise Primary School installation is one of a dozen to be built as a part of a first-of-its scale project for the region. Ten Solar Workforce apprentices helped put solar panels up on the St. Paul Elementary School over the summer.
The apprentices were Lee and Wise County high school students and recent graduates. Some of the recent graduates have already gotten jobs with GOT Electric.
“I signed up for the money,” Noah Mullins, one of the students from Wise County, said in a recent article for The Appalachian Voice. “But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with what they gave us.”
This pioneering project builds on a series of legislative successes in the Virginia General Assembly supported by a wide range of lawmakers and renewable energy advocates — including passage of the 2020 Clean Economy Act and subsequent bills that raised limits on net metering, allowing utility customers to sell excess power, and expanded access to power purchase agreements, allowing third-party owners to operate solar installations for clients.
More solar installations will be coming to schools in the coming years, and the Solar Workgroup is also working to secure $10 million for the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Grant Fund, which will help deploy solar on former mine lands and other brownfield sites.
Additionally, the workgroup is fighting to expand access to shared solar or community solar into the region. Shared solar will help residents who do not own their own homes or who cannot afford solar access it via a subscription. Both of these policies will build the demand for solar jobs and support growth of a regional solar industry.