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Solar competitors join forces, plan to address shortage of electricians

By Fran Gonzalez | Feb 22, 2021
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez The new ReVision Energy facility on Route 3 in Montville Feb. 19. The company announced Feb. 12 the purchase of Insource Renewables of Pittsfield.

Montville — Two employee-owned solar companies have joined forces with a goal of accelerating the regional transition to renewable energy, and meeting surging demand for zero-emission solutions.

Insource Renewables of Pittsfield was purchased by Montville-based ReVision Energy in a deal announced Feb. 12.

ReVision Energy operates five facilities located in Montville, South Portland, Enfield, Brentwood, New Hampshire, and North Andover, Massachusetts.

According to the press release announcing ReVision's acquisition of Insource, since 2003 the company has installed more than 10,000 clean-energy systems in northern New England, including solar-electric systems, heat pumps, battery storage and electric vehicle charging stations.

ReVision co-founder Phil Coupe said all new renewable technologies rely on electricity and there is a bottleneck to get qualified licensed electricians. "We're trying to bust through that puzzle."

Vaughan Woodruff, Insource’s chief executive and a former instructor and technical consultant, will be charged with leading and expanding the ReVision Energy Training Center for electricians.

The training program began in 2018 in the company’s South Portland facility, and at that time, ReVision was the first solar company in the nation to launch such a state-certified program. The center streamlines the lengthy process of certification and helps individuals move through the stages of becoming an apprentice, journeyman and licensed master electrician.

The program is offered, he said, to people ReVision plans to hire who have at least a high school education and are looking for good jobs, good salaries and good benefits.

"We built a stand-alone facility that we use to build arrays," he said. "They do actual installations, then take them down."

In all, Coupe said, 20 trainees are currently going through the program. "An initial 10 kicked it off before COVID," he said, and since then 10 more people have signed on.

"Vaughan (Woodruff) is nationally accredited," Coupe said, and "it's perfect to have someone of his caliber" working for the program. "He is a real superstar."

Woodruff said that while traditional education is based on learning theory and practice, the model ReVision uses puts people in the field for practice and then supplements that experience with theory.

What has been happening, he said, is people go through a two-year community college where “you are removed from the work.” Insource, he said, did not have the scale to develop an in-house training program and relied on outside resources.

“It’s tough on our staff when you work a day in the field and then take a class,” he said. “It becomes challenging when one or two people may be doing that.”

The ReVision training program, similar to hands-on training offered by the labor union, aims to supplement the work day with real-world apprenticeship learning, as well as online coursework. “It’s the richest form of education,” he said.

Under Woodruff’s direction, the education center will be expanded to incorporate training in other aspects of the industry, including leadership and business development.

ReVision’s other co-founder, Fortunat Mueller, said, “Workforce development is one of our industry’s most pressing challenges and we have high expectations that Vaughan will be able to help us address that issue by taking the helm of our homegrown ReVision Energy Training Center.”

The training program was launched in response to the longstanding shortage of electricians in the state.

Chuck Fraser, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local 1253 knows firsthand about the declining numbers of qualified technical professionals and shared some reasons why the trades have taken a hit in a Feb. 18 interview with The Republican Journal.

Electricians in Maine, he said, are a graying breed. "This year we will be retiring off 80 people." And all the recent solar applications, he said, are creating a boom in the industry.

The problem, as he sees it, starts in the schools, where the push by guidance counselors is to get students to go to college instead of promoting technical community colleges and apprenticeships.

For its part, Fraser said, the union travels to job fairs and gives kids information about the trade to at least expose them to another option.

It is hard, he said. "This is only about 15 minutes, compared to 12 years of being told you have to go to college."

"I think those professions are looked down upon by society," he said. "The idea that you have to go to a four-year school is coming back to bite us."

While the industry continues to grow, Fraser said there are only so many who want to follow this career path, and with school enrollment down in the state, the pool is shrinking.

Fraser gave the example of Bangor High School graduating 12 students from the electrical trades program. From that total, he said, maybe six will go on to pursue a career.  "This is sad," he said. "You are always going to need an electrician, a plumber or a carpenter."

Woodruff agreed, saying, “It’s pretty out of whack,” referring to the typical perception the idea of a tradesperson conjures up. The truth of the matter is, these jobs are held by folks with the least amount of debt earning a decent wage in occupations that are in high demand across the state, he said.

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