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Solar power surge

Electricians aim to help push 'green' technology mainstream

Supporters of solar power are often imagined as more likely to own Birkenstock sandals than a union card, but a big Dorchester-based electricians' union will launch a major effort next week to bring rooftop solar panel installations into the mainstream of the trade. Local 103 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will begin offering a 35-hour class in photovoltaic panel installation to 150 or more apprentices in its standard five-year training program. The 6,000-member local's class, one of the first of its kind in the country, is expected to rapidly increase the number of people in eastern Massachusetts qualified to install solar electric power systems and boost solar installation expertise and interest among conventional electrical contractors.

Massachusetts currently has about 180 solar power installations that are able to feed surplus electricity back into the power grid, as well as an unknown number of additional "off-the-grid" systems, according to Paul Gromer, executive director of the New England Solar Energy Business Association.

Another 380 installations are in various stages of planning and funding by the state renewable energy trust, which is run by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a Westborough quasi-public state agency that collects funds for "green power" projects from a small tax on utility bills.

"What Local 103 is doing is great for photovoltaics in Massachusetts," Gromer said. "By expanding the pool of electricians who know PV [photovoltaic technology], they are removing an important bottleneck to getting systems installed and helping to reduce installation costs. Also, by making PV part of their training curriculum, Local 103 is helping to move PV into the mainstream."

While unions' interest in securing a beachhead in a small, growing industry often raises concerns about higher costs and work rules, solar industry executives including Steven J. Strong, of Solar Design Associates in Harvard, and Rex D'Agostino, marketing vice president of Evergreen Solar, in Marlborough, said they have no qualms about welcoming Local 103 participation. Having hundreds of electricians from "bread and butter" electrical contracting shops familiar with the technology, they said, will offer huge new growth potential for the solar industry.

Michael P. Monahan, business manager for the local, which includes more than 4,500 employees at National Electrical Contractors Association member firms, said solar power appeals to union leaders as a "green" cause in two ways: it is good for the environment, and it's also good for getting greenback dollars for members.

"Our people definitely see the `save the whales' issues, and we also recognize this is going to be a good source of work for years to come, and we want to be sure we get a good piece of it," Monahan said.

"This is definitely the way to go for a bunch of reasons. Taking the labor union hat off and putting the citizen of the United States hat on, you know you have got to get away from our dependency on foreign oil. It just makes sense all the way around," Monahan said.

Local 103 also has become a big user of solar power. Last November, members installed 48 panels on the roof of their training center alongside the Southeast Expressway in Dorchester. This summer the panels have been generating as much as 5,400 watts of electricity to help run air conditioners and lights. The union is working on installing monitors that would show how much money it is saving on its NStar Electric bill, and it is also interested in looking at adding rooftop wind-powered generating gear.

Samantha Mills, a Quincy electrician and fifth-year apprentice in the IBEW training program who will be starting the solar class next week, said, "Everybody is very excited about it. It will be a huge opportunity for our members to get work. I think it's going to be great for our future in the electric industry and for the future of Massachusetts."

Dennis Nigro of Wakefield, who will also be taking the apprentice class, agreed that solar installations could be a major new source of work.

"The more we know, the better," Nigro said. "Hopefully it will create a lot of jobs around Massachusetts, and it could explode into a huge market for Local 103. "

In recent years, Local 103 has added several new elements to its five-year training program, including classes in asbestos removal and environmental-hazard remediation, to increase the work opportunites for electricians. The solar class will involve all aspects of installing photovoltaic panels and wiring them into home and business electric systems, including installation of specially designed electric meters that are able to let surplus power flow back into the local distribution grid.

Solar specialists such as Gromer and Strong said the number of electricians with the needed skills in Massachusetts is probably now in the dozens, so adding 150 more IBEW-trained specialists every year would rapidly increase the talent pool.

"The industry has actually been slowed down by not having the IBEW-level contractors available with this expertise," said Strong, who has designed scores of installations nationally over the last three decades, including a solar hot water system in use at the White House pool grounds in Washington, D.C.

Massachusetts' northern latitude and long, dark winters make it less suitable for widespread use of solar power than sunnier areas but installations totaling about 483,000 watts of grid-connected PV power are now operating across the Bay State, the solar energy association estimates. That amount represents, however, less than 1/1,000th of the output of a big power plant such as the gas-fired Exelon Corp. units in Everett and Weymouth or the coal-burning Salem Harbor station.

Most of the Massachusetts installations are small, niche projects, such as a 30-kilowatt system at Beverly High School, a 28-kilowatt system at the US Coast Guard station in Boston, a 20-kilowatt installation at the Porter Square shopping center in Cambridge, and a 15-kilowatt system at a BJ's Wholesale Club store in North Dartmouth, Gromer said. The state also sports a fledgling but fast-growing cluster of solar generating equipment makers, including Evergreen Solar Inc. in Marlborough and Konarka Technologies in Lowell.

Gromer added that as more electrical contractors have electricians on staff who can install the systems, public interest and support for solar power could grow quickly. "As more electricians and other building professionals come to understand photovoltaics, the more PV will become an option for all consumers. PV is the cleanest and quietest way there is to generate electricity," Gromer said. "The more people know and understand it, the more people love it."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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