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Solar project to bring jobs to unemployed coal workers

Rob Mathis working for CH Electrical installs a panel on a bank of solar panels at Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda on Aug 12. Credit: Richard Sitler, The Southern

A solar energy company has announced a new project in Southern Illinois that will retrain former coal industry workers in renewable energy.

Solar Alliance Energy Inc., based in San Diego, says it plans to build a 500 kW community solar generation and battery storage project in Southern Illinois over 2.5 years starting in 2017.

The pilot project will include a workforce redevelopment program to provide skills training and jobs to 30 unemployed and underemployed coal industry workers.

Solar Alliance CFO Eric Knutzen has family roots in Southern Illinois, and he proposed the region during a company brainstorming session.

“We said, what can we do to get into an area that maybe has high electric rates and also displaced workers?” Knutzen said. “I sort of raised my hand and said, ‘Well, I definitely know where there’s some displaced coal workers, underemployed at minimum, if not unemployed — I mean, my mom’s house is even built on top of a coal mine.’”

Knutzen said the project will address several interconnected issues.

“What I’ve seen is the need for a transition to other skill sets, and there is, as you know, a big transition energy-wise to find solutions that save everyone money and address the issues in hand of greenhouse gases, and the use of a fuel or a source of energy that we can count on over the long term, and not just temporarily. Solar is one of those long-term solutions,” he said.

The project will provide power to both residential and commercial customers, Knutzen said.

“I think all of us want our electric bills on a monthly basis to go down,” he said.

The company said it expects to sign a power purchase agreement within a year, and a specific site for the project will be determined during that time. Knutzen would not say whether any specific towns or areas are currently on the table.

700 coal industry workers in Illinois lost their jobs in 2015, the company said in a press release announcing the new project.

Underemployed coal sector workers will be recruited for the project through local job placement agencies, advertising and industry outreach.

“The skill sets that are available in training for installation and so forth are there, they just have to be applied there in Southern Illinois to help people transition over to something that we know the residential and commercial users of electricity are looking at right now,” said Knutzen.

Solar Alliance announced the project as a “Commitment to Action” at the 2016 Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York.

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