A convergence of economic, geopolitical, and societal factors has put clean energy squarely in the spotlight over the last few years — and perhaps never more so than now. With oil and gas prices steadily rising around the globe (even before the Russia-Ukraine conflict), growing prominence of climate change as a political issue, and an increased interest in renewable energy policy at the federal level, it seems everyone is focusing on the clean energy economy.
Here in Westchester, the restrictions on natural gas and the large pipeline of pending offshore wind projects nearby have also helped tip the scales toward renewables. Westchester’s clean-energy employers are growing, with a number of firms now calling the county home, including Dandelion and Geothermal Works in the geothermal sphere, solar firms such as Sunrise Solar, Quest Solar, and Sun Blue Energy, and Brightcore Energy, an Armonk firm that works to improve energy eﬃciency in commercial buildings, among others.
All of this emphasis on clean energy means one thing: we’re going to need a trained local workforce that can support this growing industry.
“We’re working hard to get our arms around what the needs are going to be to support these clean energy efforts. We’re meeting with employers to understand what they will be looking for and how we can help,” notes Bridget Gibbons, the director of Westchester County Economic Development, which recently became part of the CUNY/ SUNY Clean Energy Jobs Consortium — a group designed to create learning opportunities and career pathways for area residents who want to work in the clean energy economy.
A look at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s (NYSERDA) 2021 New York Clean Energy Report shows more than 157,000 clean energy jobs across the state in categories like energy eﬃciency, renewable electric power generation, clean and alternative transportation, renewable fuels, and grid modernization and energy storage. There are also nearly 500 clean energy training programs across the state and NYSERDA recently committed $108 million to support the creation of a clean-energy workforce pipeline.
One local group working with NYSERDA is Soulful Synergy, based in New Rochelle, which is helping to fill the pipeline with training, certification, and career-placement offerings in the clean-energy sector. The organization serves as the training provider for the Willdan Clean Energy Academy, run by engineering and energy solutions firm The Willdan Group and funded in part by NYSERDA grants.
Since it began in 2019, “we’ve trained about 300 participants in this clean-energy workforce training program,” notes Soulful Synergy COO and Co-founder Dwayne R. Norris. “Participants get about 60 hours of technical training on energy eﬃciency, including the practices of energy auditing.” The program’s success is easy to see in its 70% hiring rate for graduates. Soulful Synergy also provides training for roles in areas like electrical systems, lighting, HVAC, thermal systems, heating systems, and domestic hot water systems. And, the company recently partnered with social services agency WestCOP to provide a free HVAC and clean-heat training program that debuted in January 2022 with its first cohort of 20 participants. “The program teaches about new heat pump technology, which will revolutionize the way that homes and buildings are heated, using electrified heat as opposed to oil, fossil fuels, or other forms of less-eﬃcient energy sources,” Norris explains. Participants also receive professional development assistance, including career roadmapping and resume and interview preparation.
The clean energy economy is also going to require skilled engineers and project managers as well as trained field workers. Curtis Instruments, a Mount Kisco-based firm that manufactures motor speed controllers and other instrumentation for electric vehicles such as forklifts, golf carts, medical mobility devices and others, can attest to a broad demand for engineers in clean energy positions.
“There is a dearth of engineers and specialists in this field for us — not only in New York, but everywhere right now, there is a great deal of competition for engineering talents and for software talents,” says Frank Matheis, director of marketing for Curtis. To help fill its engineering jobs, Curtis works closely with SUNY New Paltz, which has an engineering department that specializes in electric vehicles. Curtis has been able to hire several customer-service engineers and applications engineers that way.
According to research done by E2, clean energy jobs pay 25% more than the national median wage.
Organizations like the Westchester County Association (WCA) are looking for ways to build on Westchester’s position as a hotbed for clean energy activity. “We are advancing policies and developing tools to actively assist our members to prepare for the new energy economy. Our businesses will need the practical knowledge and incentives to adapt,” Michael Romita, CEO of WCA, told 914INC. late last year.
In addition to advocacy plans aimed at boosting clean energy-friendly policies at local and state levels, the WCA has launched a Clean Energy Program Portal, in partnership with Pace University’s Energy and Climate Center. The portal is a searchable guide to available clean energy programs and incentives for businesses in the region that wish to lower their carbon footprints. The WCA has also partnered with Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business to provide an online course in organizational sustainability for working professionals. And, it is working with Sustainable Westchester on a series of roundtables and other sessions on how to promote the clean-energy industry and find the right workforce.
Students committed to clean-energy jobs can get a leg up at SUNY Westchester Community College. The college has teamed up with the Con Edison Power of Giving Program to offer students its Bright Futures programming, which aims to prepare students for careers in energy, engineering technology, and sustainability fields. In addition to classes that lead to certificates and/or degrees, Bright Futures also includes career panels, a job fair, a college/career Open House event, meet-and-greet sessions with industry employees, and field trips to industry sites.
In addition to offering a wealth of opportunities in a growing field, the clean energy industry also offers positions that are good potential wealth-builders. According to research done by E2, a business group working on environmental issues, clean energy jobs pay 25% more than the national median wage. E2 cites median hourly wages from $19.14 to more than $25 per hour for jobs in renewable energy, clean fuels, solar energy, energy eﬃciency, and wind and grid modernization jobs.
Collecting green for “green” work is surely an appealing prospect for many Westchesterites looking for new careers to embark upon.