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Turning a desert into ‘green’ gold

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New skills developed at the College of the Desert's Desert Energy Enterprise Center helped Steve Sisco secure a job with First Solar.

Photo: First Solar

​Undeveloped for years, many discounted the old ranch along California’s Interstate 10 and Gene Autry Trail as a swath of land capable of tilling only rocks. Few speculated this would become the spot where College of the Desert (COD) would produce a bumper crop of green job graduates or a solar thermal parabolic trough.

Today, COD’s Desert Energy Enterprise Center is seen as a hub for new technology, hands-on curriculum and links with renewable energy industry employers that are paying off in the form of jobs for local residents.

“The desert region is at the center of the rapidly growing renewable energy industry,’’ said Karen Douglas, California’s energy commissioner, lauding COD’s utility-scale solar training program. “New solar power plants will have a highly skilled workforce available to meet their needs.”

A solid set of partnerships

The seed for the center was planted two years ago with a Clean Energy Workforce Training Program grant. With the state grant, COD’s Advanced Transportation Technology & Energy Center (ATTE) focused on workforce development needs for the solar industry in Southern California.

In 2010, COD teamed with First Solar and others to design a special curriculum for careers in solar renewable energy. The goal was to create a pipeline of trained workers to fill the 440-plus jobs created by the Desert Sunlight plant in eastern Riverside County.

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The company sent its lead trainer, Robert Bowling, to the Desert Energy Enterprise Center and to COD’s community college partner, Palo Verde College, to assist with training on First Solar technology.

“Together, we have developed a sustainable and skilled local workforce,’’ said Laura Abram, First Solar director of sustainability and community affairs. “Our partnership exemplifies a strong relationship between education and business which is essential to developing a vibrant economy in the Coachella Valley.”

Saving time and money

For employers like First Solar, the partnership has helped take a time-intensive search for skilled workers out of the equation.

Nathan Rudolph, project manager for First Solar, said the 550-megawatt plant expects to hit peak construction levels this fall with 630 workers.

“Many COD graduates are already on the job; as we ramp up, we plan to bring the rest in,” he said.

The hiring trend is just the beginning, according to Michael Picker, California Gov. Jerry Brown’s advisor on renewable energy. Drawing from a recent site visit to Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Project, Picker said 1,600 people already are working there round-the-clock.

“There is a large queue of projects waiting to go forward,” said Douglas, noting that 14 out of 137 projects the state permitted between 2010 and 2011 are in operation.

“COD is serving a long-term need, not a short-term need,’’ she said. “College of the Desert, and its many partners, are playing a central role to address the state’s 33 percent renewable energy portfolio goal.”

Larry McLaughlin, director of ATTE, said the benefits of COD partnerships with solar industry companies benefit students, too. Training is aligned with the expectations of employers, he said.

“Our students have the confidence of knowing the company they go to work for helped design their curriculum to be hired, and to succeed,” he said, adding: “I can’t think of another industry that will have as big an impact on the region in the next five or 10 years.”

Spc