Following the sun to a Colorado energy job

This nonprofit trains energy workers from other sectors

After almost 23 years in the U.S. Air Force, Kevin Sova was pushed into military retirement at 45 due to downsizing.

The developmental engineer wanted to follow his passion into a different career path in renewable energy, but needed a way to get his foot in the door. So this summer, Sova took advantage of a current push in Colorado to retrain workers for the solar industry.

In June, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment awarded the nonprofit Solar Energy International in Paonia a $401,000 WORK Act Grant for outreach and marketing of job training. Already 100 students have completed training or enrolled in the Solar Ready Colorado program at SEI.

The goal is to retrain 350 unemployed coal miners, military veterans, furloughed oil and gas employees, and construction trade workers by June 2017, says Chris Turek, SEI marketing and alumni relations director. Those workers possess transferable skills for the growing solar job sector and can take a single introductory course or log 200 hours for a solar professional certificate.

Although the 25-year-old educational nonprofit in known nationally and internationally by more than 45,000 alumni in all 50 states and 160 countries, the new funding is raising awareness of the Western Slope company in Colorado. Turek says a common question students ask is, “Where is Paonia?” Visiting students soon find plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities during their downtime. The students need lodging and meals, thus providing a significant economic boost to the small town in Delta County.

“With the decline of coal, people want to refocus,” Turek says. “Paonia has many like-minded individuals who want to support solar.”

About one-third of all certified solar installers in North America have completed training through SEI, Turek noted. The organization prepares some 3,500 people online each year and another 1,500 in Paonia during hands-on lab training season from April to October.

This May, SEI earned approval to accept GI Bill funding. The organization also has seen rapid growth in Spanish-language classes, training more than 300 people since a Spanish-only program expansion in mid-2015.

The U.S. solar industry has experienced 123 percent job grown in the past six years, according to the nonprofit Solar Foundation. Almost 5,000 people work in the solar sector in Colorado, ranking 10th in the nation.

SEI Grew Out of Carbondale

Solar Energy International started from humble beginnings in 1991 by home builder Johnny Weiss, who co-founded SEI in Carbondale, shared space with the local solar-powered community radio station. The program grew out of Weiss’ work in the 1980s as an associate professor at the local community college where he taught a vocational solar training program. After two decades as the SEI executive director, Weiss now serves as a consultant, and worked in Africa this fall.

The nonprofit transitioned its headquarters to a large laboratory campus in rural Paonia on seven acres just south of the quaint downtown. The sunny campus includes a utility-scale power system and a variety of solar systems that students regularly install and uninstall. The organization employs five full-time curriculum directors, 40 adjunct instructors and 20 part- or full-time workers including 13 staff members in Paonia.

Categories: Made in Colorado, Magazine Articles