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New program trains students in clean energy; Leaders hope to expand across North Carolina

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Halifax Community College
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The 2022 cohort of students studying solar panels and solar energy at Halifax Community College in Weldon, NC. The students are part of a larger program to build the clean energy workforce for a sustainable future.

Issac Evans, 17, is a rising senior at Halifax County Early College High School. He wants to be a software engineer in the future.

"I'm a technical person. I like technology," said Evans. "I figured it'd be cool learning how to deal with solar panels and wiring stuff up because I do stuff like that sometimes."

A few hours southwest, 20-year-old Esteban Lopez Jimenez is studying civil engineering at North Carolina A&T State University.

"I was really interested (in) doing something different," Jimenez said. "Something related to either energy or water."

Both of these young men are part of the North Carolina Clean Energy Youth Apprenticeship Program. Evans is taking the solar energy route, while Jimenez is learning about heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC).

The pilot of this program launched last year. This summer, the program has doubled in size. This program is the first of its kind in the country.

The program is part of a larger plan, called Steps4Growth, to expand a clean energy workforce across North Carolina as the state quickly moves to lower carbon emissions. Bipartisan legislation passed last year requires North Carolina to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

Organizers of Steps4Growth hope to expand the program statewide with a $25 million federal grant that could be awarded soon.

NC Clean Energy Youth Apprenticeship Program

Right now, the two-month summer program offers two modules: solar energy and HVAC.

The solar energy module is based at Halifax Community College. For the first few weeks, students take different classes, such as OSHA and the fundamentals of solar. Students also take classes that teach problem solving and workplace skills.

The last half of the module involves hands on training provided by companies like Strata Clean Energy, a solar company, and Roanoke Electric. At the end of the summer, Strata may offer students an apprenticeship.

Students in the HVAC module are based throughout Wake, Mecklenburg and Guilford counties. These students are in both high school and college.

 HVAC students go through three days of virtual orientation, and then get on the job training in the field, like Jimenez. About 20 different companies have partnered with this program to offer apprenticeships to students.

Rhonda High is the customized training director at Halifax Community College. She said this program purposefully focuses on diversity and equity.

"All of our Tier One and Tier Two counties need to have the opportunity for students to see the clean energy sector," High said. "Many times students in those areas don't know all of the options that are out there for them. So I hope to see (the program) grow. I hope to see us have more students."

Students get paid per hour and can earn course credits. They’re also provided food, transportation, and equipment as needed.

This summer, there are 60 students participating in the program. Of those 60, 84% are minority students and 65% are female students.

Steps4Growth

Steps4Growth is an extensive plan that includes training people in four different industries: renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, and grid and storage.

Each of those categories includes different subcategories, outlined in the graph below. Individual programs focus on these subcategories.

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Balakrishna Gokaraju at NCA&T University
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This graph illustrates how Steps4Growth will be organized. Programs will focus on subsectors. For example, the ongoing solar energy program at Halifax Community College is a subsector program of renewable energy.

The ongoing solar and HVAC modules discussed earlier serve as models for future initiatives. With the $25 million federal grant, all the other programs and classes would be created.

"We need to develop courses. These (topics) are very new," said Balakrishna Gokaraju, an engineering professor at North Carolina A&T and one of the organizers of Steps4Growth. "For example, nobody is offering courses in electric vehicles. There are not enough technicians to fix (broken charging stations). We need technicians to help with that."

Different regions across the state will be responsible for developing different classes. For instance, Guilford County will focus on energy-efficiency courses, while Halifax County will focus on renewable energy curriculum.

"We don't know of another state that has taken this approach to building a clean energy workforce system."
Caroline Sullivan, executive director of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education

Gokajaru explains that luckily, these new courses can build from already existing lessons. Following the example above, he points out that repairing an electric vehicle charging station involves electrical engineering technology.

"Many basic courses... on how to work around electric energy or advanced manufacturing — these are already available. You (just) need to put in the right package," Gokajaru said.

Once these classes are developed, the curriculum will quickly be rolled out to community colleges and universities across North Carolina. Courses will eventually be available online and in person for both high school and college students.

Students in these future courses will have the opportunity to learn through hands on training provided by partnerships with companies. If Steps4Growth is awarded the federal grant, organizers plan to build four regional tech centers throughout the state, along with two mobile units, that will also provide training.

Additionally, Steps4Growth is designed to allow students flexibility. Students can continue their education, enter the workforce, or go work then come back for more education through easily transferrable credits.

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Balakrishna Gokaraju at NCA&T State University
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This "on-ramp off-ramp" model outlines how Steps4Growth will provide students the opportunity to easily continue their education, or enter the workforce.

Caroline Sullivan is the executive director of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, the education non-profit in the Office of the Governor. She describes this model as an "on ramp and off ramp."

"We love it, because it allows students the ability to have flexibility," Sullivan said.

Sullivan also expressed enthusiasm about the work students are doing.

"Young people are so passionate about creating a cleaner (future)," Sullivan said. "They're so passionate about... finding solutions to combat climate change and to make their communities more sustainable. This program allows them to get college credit, get industry (experience and) certifications, get paid, and be part of the solution."

The ongoing program is the first of its kind in the country. With the federal grant, the program would be expanded.

"We don't know of another state that has taken this approach to building a clean energy workforce system," Sullivan said. "And the focus that we have on work-based learning and on youth."

Organizers of Steps4Growth hope to hear back about the federal grant by August.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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