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Solar power could be huge in Greater Minnesota — if they can find the people to build it

Ben Butcher
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson
Ben Butcher works as the construction manager for Real Solar, a subsidiary of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on getting solar to low-income households.

Ben Butcher and his wife live on a small farm on the outskirts of Backus, Minnesota, where they raised their four kids. He used to work as an automotive mechanic, which is where he got his first experience working with direct current — the kind of electricity that comes out of solar panels. These days, Butcher works with a lot more of it — kilowatts, in fact — as a solar installer. Like a growing number of people in the state, he makes his living directly from the sun.

Butcher works as the construction manager for Real Solar, a subsidiary of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on getting solar to low-income households. The organization employs 14 people, including between four to six solar installers, depending on the season and demand. Their crew might take three days to put in a 15-kilowatt solar array, or just a day to put in a 2-3 kilowatt system. These days its services are in higher demand than in the past, as the solar industry booms across the state, including rural areas like the one around Backus.

“When I first started,” Butcher said, “we were on the road about 70 percent of the time. But last year, it reversed. The local market has really developed, so we were on the road only about 30 percent of the time. We’re actually looking for another electrician at the moment. But solar electricians are in very high demand right now.”

Explosive solar growth

With new tariffs announced by the Trump administration and an energy market in constant flux, the solar economy faces a degree of uncertainty. But in Minnesota the sector is stronger than in most states. Last year solar jobs dropped 4 percent nationwide, while in Minnesota they rose 48.2 percent to a total of 4,256, according to the Solar Jobs Census. That’s far more solar jobs than in any of our neighboring states, including Wisconsin, where they increased just 3.9 percent (to 2,921 jobs), Iowa (up 44.6 percent to 815 jobs), South Dakota (up 1.5 percent to 485 jobs) and North Dakota (down 16.7 percent to 145 jobs).

Minnesota’s solar growth is, in fact, one of the desired effects of the Energy Omnibus Bill passed in 2013, which mandated more solar production and made it easier for independent power producers to feed energy into the grid. It also kickstarted Xcel's Community Solar Garden Program, which has seen the number of small solar arrays skyrocket. In 2013, there were only about 13 megawatts of solar power in Minnesota, according to Eric Pasi, the chief development officer at IPS Solar. At the end of 2017 there were 744.4 megawatts (including 436.8 that were added that year).

“By 2013,” said Pasi, “in 22 years of solar development, [IPS] had cumulatively installed about two megawatts of solar power statewide. At the end of this year, five years later, it will be close to 100 megawatts, and we’ll have completed 35 community solar projects, the vast majority in rural areas.”

Solar is just one of the clean energy sectors that are growing fast across the state, alongside wind power and energy efficiency. In 2016 there were some 57,351 so-called clean energy jobs, most of which were in energy efficiency. But the number of positions in wind and solar are rising, too, which could mean good things for rural parts of the state as they transition from energy importer to exporter.

Pasi cites other economic benefits from solar besides employment. For example, in 2016 IPS built a 5 megawatt solar garden in Red Wing. Building the array meant about 50 construction jobs, but once the installation was finished it didn’t need much maintenance — just one half-time position doing vegetation control, snow removal and monitoring production. At the same time, the school that owns the land will still earn around $7 million over the next over 25 years in saved energy costs and from leasing the land.

Farmers, too, are finding that by putting solar panels on their barns, or in their fields, they can earn up to two to three times as much as planting crops on the same land, while also lowering their electric bill.

“Dairy uses more power, because of all the milk processing, and all the chillers,” said Micah Johnson, the operations manager of Solar Connection, a solar installer in Rochester, which does about half of its installation on farms. “In those cases we can't always eliminate the entire electric bill. But there have been a lot of big grain farms where they have completely eliminated their bill.”

Businesses have found the same benefit. In Byron, Minnesota, Tony Wintheiser and his father, who own Hentges Glass, made a similar calculation when they had to relocate their facility from Rochester.

“We were using about 30,000 kilowatt hours annually,” said Wintheiser, “and they said we could build a 40,000 kilowatt hour solar array and sell back 10,000 to Xcel. It turned out to be a no brainer.”

With the help of Solar Connection, they applied for a no-money down, low-interest loan for around $100,000 through the MinnPACE program run by the St. Paul Port Authority, and built their new buildings with a solar array on top. The estimated payback time is eight years.

“We're very happy with it.” Wintheiser said. “Any time we’re overproducing, the energy trickles on the grid. Any time we're underproducing, it trickles off. In the winter months we had some small bills, but this last quarter we got a check for $1,500.”

Electricians in high demand

Given these benefits, and the state support, the solar explosion in Minnesota is not surprising. But, as in any new market, there have been growing pains. Many installers complain that they can’t get enough labor for the demand. They cite a State Board of Electricity rule that solar construction is considered electrical work and must be staffed at a ratio of one licensed electrician to two unlicensed ones. With increasing demand on the number of Journeyman and Master (i.e “licensed”) electricians, they say this is effectively a bottleneck on growth and employment.

“The vast majority of the system has to be done by a licensed electrician,” said Johnson. “This is a Minnesota thing, not a code thing. The Minnesota folks have decided that all parts of a solar energy system have to be done by a licensed electrician, including the ones that are plug and play.”

Blattner is a heavy construction company based in Avon, Minnesota. It was founded in 1907, and is now the largest solar installer in the country. (Another Minnesota company, Mortenson Construction, is fourth largest.)

“What Minnesota is really known for are the smaller, 5 to 10 megawatt community solar projects” said Stephen Jones, vice president of solar for Blattner. “But we’ve also got a few solar projects that are 90 megawatts plus, down near Marshall. … Any projects that we build today, we go to the local labor force to hire the people. And a lot of them become long-term employees for Blattner.”

But in Minnesota, because of the required ratio of one licensed electrician to two unlicensed ones, it can be difficult to find enough electricians in rural areas, so they often have to bring in people from states that have reciprocity with Minnesota.

“It’s hard to find local people,” said Ken Hilgert, vice president of business development, who notes that while a “large majority” of the people Blattner hires are Minnesota journeyman and apprentice electricians, many contractors have to bring people in from states Minnesota has reciprocity with.

“The numbers are staggering,” said Hilgert, “how much personal income is leaving Minnesota right now. I know one contractor who just hired 65 people, journeymen and apprentices, and all but two were from out of state. All that income is going to buy a car in Nebraska or Colorado or Arkansas.”

Ben Butcher
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson
Ben Butcher: "We're actually looking for another electrician at the moment. But solar electricians are in very high demand right now."

Pete Lindahl, a journeyman electrician, the business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 292, disputes claims that there are not enough licensed electricians in the state. “We have not experienced a shortage,” he said. “We have filled the calls that are necessary, and our jobs have been getting done on time. I have not heard anything that's been adverse to that.”

According to figures provided by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, there are currently 2,069 out-of-state Journeymen electricians registered in Minnesota, of which 878 registered in 2015 or later. There are another 2,074 registered unlicensed electricians from out of state, of which 1,856 started working in Minnesota in 2015 or after. (Only 195 out of state Master electrician have registered since 2015).

While the state doesn’t keep track of what kind of electrical work these out-of-state electricians do, the fact that the numbers began to increase alongside the solar boom suggests many of them are likely working in that sector.

Blattner and other installers chafe at the electrician-ratio requirement, saying it can raise labor costs as much at 15-20 percent on a project, and that the problem is unique to Minnesota, which has become an “anomaly in the industry.”

“The panels come in boxes. To take a panel out of a box and set it on a rack you have to be an electrician,” Hilgert said. “I need to have one journeyman and two registered electricians to do work that, in most other parts of the country, is labor work.”

For Lindahl, who is on the State Board of Electricity, the 2-to-1 ratio is a safety issue, a quality issue, and a training issue. “Some people say, ‘Well solar's really easy. It's not a hard thing. A trained monkey can do it.’  That's so wrong. The minute you take a solar panel out of its crate, that panel is hot. It's generating electricity the minute it's exposed to the sun. And in a lot of cases that's more dangerous [than standard wiring], because other wiring isn't hot all the time.”

“We would like to see the state going to a higher ratio,” said Jones. “If you went to a 1:4, a 1:6 or a 1:8, then you’d be able to pull more from rural Minnesota and get those kids into a trade.”

A bill has been introduced by Sen. Karin Housley to do just that. Senate File 3483 would keep the 1:2 ratio for some aspects of installation, and raise it to 1:3 and 1:5 for others.

“We are not in favor of changing the ratios at all,” Lindahl says. “In fact, if we were interested, it would be going the other way, so it would be one journeyman to one unlicensed, not more than that.”

Room to grow

Meanwhile, installers like Real Solar struggle to keep up with the demand.

“Since we're really focused on empowering low-income people,” said the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance’s program development specialist, Erica Bjelland, “[the ratio] makes it difficult for how many people we can have train on a job site.”

“It's a little tough now,” said Butcher, “because with the building market going back up, a lot of electricians are pretty happy where they are just doing standard house wiring.”

But one thing everyone agrees on: As fossil fuels fall behind both wind and solar on cost — even apart from social and environmental concern — Minnesota needs to stay ahead of the curve.

“Hardly anybody is building coal anymore,” said Johnson. “It's just not cost competitive anymore. We talk about putting coal miners back to work, but the reason coal miners aren't working is not because anyone is trying to kill it. It’s strictly market forces that are killing coal. That and the fact that nobody wants it in their backyard.”

On the other hand, almost everyone — developers, farmers, installers, unions — do want solar in their backyard.

“We need to get this stuff going so we can improve our environment and improve the grid,” said Lindahl. “We're in this for the long haul.”

“Minnesota got a great workforce, a great work ethic,” says Hilgert. “Everybody wants to work here. We’ve got Minnesota nice. We’ve got good people. And the opportunity is here to have a little boom, if we do it right.”


This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost's donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.

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Comments (11)

Iowa, WI, So. Dak.

Watering down the licensed to unlicensed ratio is not being pushed to employ Minnesotans. It's being done so contractors can bring in low wage labor from the surrounding states.

When employers tell tales of the difficulty finding labor, that they have done everything they can, Neel Kashkari, of the not exactly socialist MPLS Federal Reserve, has asked them if they have raised wages. When they reply they have tried everything but that, he tells them that they really haven't done everything.

Not only are solar arrays producing electricity literally "right out of the box", even the metal framing that holds the solar arrays are part of the circuitry.

These are exactly the kind of jobs, that do not require college degrees, that we want for our young people. We can train our own workforce rather than bringing in a low wage workforce to compete with our tax paying citizens.

Requirements for licensing?

What are the requirements to obtain an electrician's license to be eligible to do this work? What are the hurdles keeping people from getting licensed? Are there things the state can do to facilitate that?

Time & Training

It takes 8,000 hours working under a journeyman or master electrician to take the MN journeyman exam. That is reduced by 2,000 hours if the applicant has successfully completed a two year full time vocational program.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers apprenticeship programs attend a 8 hour class every other week in a 5 year apprenticeship. One year of credit is given for having completed a two year vocational program. The IBEW apprenticeships are jointly run by a committee of contractor and union representatives.

Like all building trades apprenticeship programs, they are operated at NO COST to the tax payers. While some industries and employers have been seeking tax payer funds to start apprenticeship programs, that has not and will not be the case for building trades programs, and other industries would do well to emulate what we already know works.

Most non-union apprentices do not have any formal training. There is at least one non-union apprenticeship program operated by the Associated Building Contractors, it is commonly acknowledged that it pales in comparison to the IBEW apprenticeships. The proof is in the pudding. When IBEW apprentices take the state exam, most pass on the first go round. Other apprentices typically need another at bat.

Just like colleges do these days, IBEW apprenticeship programs go out of their way to remove barriers to success. Barriers can include learning disabilities and similar situations. If someone needs help and doesn't get it, it's because they haven't asked.

There is no substitute for a well rounded apprenticeship. Getting experience on industrial, commercial, and residential work makes for a highly skilled, highly employable, versatile worker. IBEW apprentices work for a number of different contractors, getting exposure to various parts of the industry. Anyone who gets their 8,000 hours on just solar work is very limited in their career opportunities.

This system has served MN well. We have major industries and employers in this state, and the system we have has given them a highly skilled work force that completes projects on time and within budget. Watering down our standards will not help our economy and is unnecessary. Any electrical contractor can access all the skilled labor they need through an IBEW hiring hall.

Thanks

I appreciate the detailed answer. It sounds like if there is a shortage of licensed electricians in rural areas, like that installer claims, there should be some greater effort directed towards steering people towards those careers rather than watering down standards.

The problem is not the ratio.

The problem is not the ratio. The jobs are already there. We need to help direct people into working in the trades. There are plenty of contractors who do not have a problem staffing these jobs. We definitely do not want to make it easier for someone to obtain an electrical license. Electricity is something you can't see, smell, or hear. And it can kill you. In Minnesota we want our electricians knowledgeable and safe. Changing the ratio will open up the door to unskilled labor coming in and not caring about the work, or even pursuing a career as an electrician. Again what we need to do is steer young and old into a high paying career with benefits. I am an electrician apprentice in the union. I make enough that I have a wife who can stay home and raise my two beautiful intelligent daughters and we have great health insurance. In a couple years I will be making anywhere from 80,000-100,000 a year. Seriously lets start talking about how we can get more people interested in a career in the trades. Not how can we make it easier for a contractor to make a quick buck.

What kind of industry do we want?

This false perception that increasing ratios on solar projects and therefore allowing a cheaper labor pool would be a benefit to the industry. As they tout the “job” creation created by the renewable energy industry, let’s not forget that the residents of Minnesota deserve and should demand high quality good wage and benefited Careers. If you’re having a hard time finding electrical workers to work on your solar project, maybe you need to examine the wages, benefits and working conditions you have to offer.

Electricians are available

I represent over 125 electrical contractors in all sizes operating across the state. Those electrical contractors had hundreds of electrical workers on solar installations last year, and this year. If solar installers need electricians, we can do that solar electrical work.

Gary Thaden
Minnesota contractors of the National Electrical Contractors Association

Solar jobs...

are on the rise in Minnesota because the energy community took so long to get their stuff together while it was being established a while back in western states.

Stop subsidizing solar

If we stop subsidizing solar, the problem will solve its self. The government caused the problem by mandating and subsidizing so called “green” energy with taxpayer dollars. If progressives are so earth conscious, they shouldn’t need a tax break to do the right thing, right?

Maybe

As long as we stop subsidizing other forms of energy.

Much of the costs of coal power are externalized, such as (but not limited to) respiratory diseases. We've spent over one trillion dollars on Mid East (mis)adventures, mainly because God put our oil underneath other countries.

And the nuclear industry is the worst. The Price-Anderson Act was passed to remove liability for nuke plant accidents from the industry. With out this government expansion into the economy, by socializing the costs while leaving the profits private, the private nuclear power industry would not exist. No private insurer would ever insure for the liability of a melt down.

As long as no one is favored, sure, let's eliminate the subsidies. All of them.

hate that cheap power

You are right Chad, the government should stop forcing cheap power on us. I really want to pay the 15 cents per kWh for energy from a new coal plant (do your research). Having to enter into these long term contracts for utility scale solar under 5 cents is silly. And lets go one more and build new nukes, that 25-35 cents+ pkWh really would be a bargain compared to wind plus storage contracts that are now under a nickle as well (do your research, again).
https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/record-low-solar-plus-stora...
This is America, I want to pay more and get my pollution back!