Alabama may not be a state you associate with an active solar training program, but in just a few years, it’s quietly but steadily been making its mark and presence known as a venue for exemplary solar training in the southeast region.

Calhoun Energy Technology Center
Calhoun Energy Technology Center

In September 2009, an alliance of visionary administrators, dedicated faculty and energetic community leaders cut the ribbon at the 11,000 square foot Alabama Center of Excellence in Clean Energy Technology (ACECET) building. Created under a $3.4 million grant from the Department of Labor to meet the needs for energy certified practitioners in energy assessment and energy efficient installation, ACECET became home to Calhoun’s Community College’s Renewable Energy Associate Degree program where students learn and train in a LEED Platinum building and, even better, leave Calhoun prepared to become part of the new clean energy workforce

Calhoun Community College is also a solar training institution under the Solar Instructor Training Network’s (SITN) southeast region. In the U.S., nine regions in the Network have select educational institutions, like Calhoun, where they offer train-the-trainer workshops, training equipment and tools for instructors. Just recently, Calhoun attained the IREC credential for training program accreditation for three solar courses: PV system principles and design; PV installation and servicing procedures; and solar thermal principles.

John Holley and prize Brahma
John Holley and prize Brahma

Leading Calhoun’s solar program is native son, fourth generation farmer and former HVAC contractor, John Holley. It’s been a whirlwind of activity since 2006, when he started at CCC, and he has been working on the ACECET project ever since. He keeps very long hours: he still tends the family farm and teaches a full load, yet he graciously made time to visit with IREC about the unpredictable rise of solar in the community of Decatur, Alabama. Here’s our conversation.

IREC: First, congratulations for the recent IREC accreditation of three of CCC’s solar courses: REN 115, 205 and 215. What inspired you to go after this credential?

JH: We actually started ‘slowly’ developing a renewable energy curriculum in 2009, but with the growth in the renewable energy field, we had to ramp up our development process.  From the very beginning, we had to make the decision of what courses we’d teach.  All of our programs in the technical division at Calhoun have some type of third-party nationally recognized accreditation specific to their field, so we’re familiar with and believe in third-party credentials.

As we reviewed other courses, nationally and internationally, we realized that the only credential that could verify our curriculum and give us the stamp of quality was the IREC credential. For anyone who’s ever gone through a regional accreditation process, you know that having the right people is crucial when you undergo a rigorous self-assessment of your program. Fortunately, the plans of instruction for our courses were developed using NABCEP standards, so this made the process somewhat easier.

CCC mock PV roof
Calhoun Energy Technology Center mock PV roof

JH: When we became a participating RTP organization, we really didn’t know how far or to what extent we would move into teaching renewable energy. But it wasn’t long before we saw the need for third-party verification of our courses.  There are definite advantages to being part of the southeast network and having the IREC credential, and they do complement each other. When Calhoun became the first community college regional provider in the state of Alabama, it really created a lot of attention for us. We garnered help and support from the industry, along with recruitment of students in our area. We see the IREC credential doing much the same. The fact that our graduates can go anywhere and say he/she completed an IREC credentialed course gives the college and the student a market boost.

IREC: So in just five short years, the program started with 70 students in green technology and renewable non-credit and continuing education courses, and now CCC has an AAS degree program with three renewable energy programs and holding the IREC Credential for Accredited Training Programs. You’ve been moving pretty quickly.

Student at Calhoun Community College's Solar Thermal Program
Student at Calhoun Community College’s Solar Thermal Program

JH: The program has constantly maintained an enrollment of between 70-100 students. My numbers may be a bit off, but from the fall of 2010 until spring 2013, we’ve trained close to 300 students who have completed at least one of our programs. The Applied Science degree in Applied Technology with a major in Renewable Energy Technology is a broad-based, 73-hour curriculum in solar, wind, and hydropower, along with a scientific, economic and political context of the industry.  We also have a 24-hour short certificate program and non-credit courses. From class evaluations, former students and those students who transfer in from other programs report that our curriculum gives them dynamic, hands-on training, not just theory, history and economic aspects of the industry. We recognize that the number one recruiting tool we have is our former students.

IREC: A perfect segue about the demographics in your classes. What does your student population look like today? Are your students mostly local? Do you have women in your classes?

JH: We have a very active program with both incumbent workers and traditional students.  Most of our students are from Alabama or southern Tennessee. Although our current student population for renewable energy is about 60% / 40% male/female, we’ve been very fortunate to bring many women into our program, and we do have at least one international student.

IREC: I saw on the website that just last year, CCC offered scholarships for this program. I’m guessing you had a few takers. Your students are being trained in a state-of-the-art facility, featuring solar PV and solar thermal technologies, so they must have a good feeling that they’re being trained well to excel in an incredibly rapidly changing industry. Are graduates finding work? 

Calhoun Energy Technology Center Solar Lab
Calhoun Energy Technology Center Solar Lab

JH: Yes, we have offered scholarships, and we were able to award every scholarship we had funding for! Our completion rate for these students was very high and we have some students who are still actively seeking their degree even though our scholarship cycle has expired.  We track all completers of technology programs at Calhoun, and yes, our graduates are finding employment in our area and nationwide. We have graduates in all areas of the industry, including manufacturing, design, sales, installation, and commissioning.

IREC: Who’s been hired?

JH: John Clark, a graduate, has worked for Southern Solar Systems and now for HC Blake Co. in Huntsville. He plans to transfer to a four-year university and work on an engineering degree this fall. His father and I are best friends so he has to do what I say! LOL

IREC: It’s great that there are real-life stories about graduates. Would you say CCC’s training programs are unique, and if so, why?

Calhoun Energy Technolgoy Center's Danny Wallace
Calhoun Energy Technolgoy Center’s Danny Wallace

JH: Without a doubt, the number one thing that makes our program unique is the quality of our instructors. Mark Rose and Danny Wallace could not be more outgoing and enthusiastic about teaching renewable energy. You can feel the synergy within our program. We take a vested interest in the relationship between our students and employers. We want to make sure we produce the most employable graduate with many skills and tools to pursue his/her career, whether it’s a PV installation technician, an HVAC technician with renewable energy credentials, or a building auditor.  Once again, our “hands-on” applied labs seem to be one of our greatest selling points. All of the LEED features — solar PV and hot water systems, geothermal heat pumps, natural and LED lighting systems, water storage and rainwater—all of these are controlled and monitored by a custom energy management system that our students train on.

We feel like we have one of the most innovative training centers nationwide, with the latest equipment available for students.

IREC: What’s surprised you most about this work?

JH: I never thought we would have such a demand for our training. Jerry Adams, who helped us ACECET did an awesome job of promoting the program to incumbent workers and others in our service area.  It’s also been unbelievably rewarding to see the tentacles reaching out from other industries into the renewable energy field. This outreach has been an inspiration for us to push renewable energy and energy efficiency further out into the mainstream.

IREC: The growth has been meteoric and robust, but it’s not without its challenges.

JH: Definitely. We’re a small program; we know we need to continue to grow. To do this, we believe that business development is an important component. We’re always looking for ways to extend our reach and help increase awareness about the benefits of renewable energy. We’re also aware that barriers still exist, so we’re constantly working with other stakeholders that play a role in making renewable energy a reality here at Decatur and in Alabama generally.  All facets have to be in place for growth to continue.

Like other educational institutions, funding is a constant challenge. The critical pieces all influence each other: tuition, curriculum and demands from industry. We recognize the need to be financially sustainable. We also constantly challenge ourselves and our students to be the best.

IREC: Solar training is alive and well in Alabama. So what’s next in the queue?

ACECET plaqueJH: Staying on top of emerging trends and technologies is a never-ending job, but essential if we’re going to build and be a partof the 21st century clean energy workforce. We’re definitely up to the task. We’ve got a beautiful building with a 20kW PV system that provides 80% of the building’s total power requirements. Solar hot water provides all of the building’s hot water needs. It’s a living laboratory that works. This work is important because it makes so much sense.

IREC: Thanks, John, for making time for IREC. Keep up the stellar work at CCC.