Real people powering a clean energy future
Choose another profile:
Photovoltaic Program director/instructor, Solar Energy International
Academic/Researcher, Carbondale, Colorado
The U.S. possesses tremendous solar resources. Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology alone could power the entire United States using just one-third of 1 percent of the land area—about the size of the state of New Hampshire. To put that into context, the land area covered by artificial lakes from U.S. hydroelectric dams is about 4 times as large, and it only supplies about 7 percent of U.S. power needs. And solar PV can be sited almost anywhere, particularly on existing structures.
Carol Weis has been teaching how to install solar electric systems for 10 years, and in that time, her students’ reasons for learning the solar "trade" have changed. "It used to be people who were idealistic, and they wanted to do something better for the world," said Weis. "Now it’s people who still may have that slant but they also know they can make a career out of this. Now they can have a job that they feel good about. And they know it’s going to benefit future generations."
Weis, 37, is one of some 50 instructors at Solar Energy International (SEI), a nonprofit organization that trains people to install a range of renewable energy technologies and construct energy-efficient buildings. Established in 1991 and headquartered in Carbondale, Colorado, SEI instructs 2,500 students annually in 70 hands-on workshops and online courses, including photovoltaic design and installation, solar water pumping, solar thermal power, wind power, micro-hydro electric systems, straw bale design and construction, and biodiesel fuel, among others.
Some SEI students are training for a career, while others simply want to install their own renewable energy systems at home. Although a percentage of the students have expertise in engineering or electrical work, the classes are designed for those who have no experience. "We assume that our students don’t know anything about electricity," said Weis. "On the first day we talk about volts, watts and amps, and then we quickly ramp up."
In Weis’s two-week course on installing solar electric systems, known in the business as photovoltaics or PV, she spends the first week in the classroom teaching students about the different types of systems, including pole-, ground- and roof-mounted, which can be connected to the electrical grid or used independently. In the second week, she takes students to the SEI lab facility where they learn how to install PV systems. By the end of the course, she says, her students are ready to go to work.
In 1998, SEI began offering a course exclusively for women. Weis was a student in that first class and has been teaching it ever since. The content is the same as the co-ed classes, said Weis, but it offers female camaraderie that is lacking in the industry. "Most women in the business have few chances to work with women on a job site," she explained. "We have five other women trainers in the course, so the students get to see role models. We feel strongly about supporting and getting women into the field, and the class is a special and empowering time for them."
In the all-female class Weis taught in June, most of the women, ranging in age from 20 to 60, were from the United States, but some traveled from as far away as Jamaica, Costa Rica and Ecuador to learn from other women. Weis is confident that her students will be able to find work in the solar industry, whether it be in sales and marketing, systems design, distribution, installation, manufacturing or policy.
Even with all the opportunities in solar power, Weis has no plans to leave her current teaching position any time soon. "I have my dream job," she said. "I’m around students who want to make a change in the world, who have paid money and taken off time to make it happen.
"Not only that," she added, "I’m allowed to travel to countries to meet other people who are doing the same thing. I have this very idealistic view point on the world because of my job. I’m constantly reminded that people are trying to do the right thing. They are working toward the same goals. They see that renewable energy and sustainability are something that they want to spend their time on. I can’t ask for too much more than that."