The U.S. Solar Institute, a Fort Lauderdale school, has been chosen by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to train former military service members without jobs in how to install solar-panel systems.
An initial 15 to 20 veterans a month from across the country are expected at the school starting in August for classes that can be completed in several weeks and on-the-job training that can last weeks longer, said Ray Johnson, the institute’s founder and president.
The Institute plans to expand from its current 6,700-square-foot building serving about 30 students a month to meet demand from the Veterans Administration program aimed to help jobless veterans.
“We’re almost all sold out in August and haven’t even started advertising yet,” Johnson said.
The approval comes as theU.S. militaryplans to expand its use of renewable energy to 25 percent of its energy needs by 2025, part of a policy to slash U.S. dependence on imported fuel and boost national security. Veterans could help install solar panels at military bases as part of that plan, Johnson said.
The move highlights the need for qualified solar-panel installers as solar industry expands. In the first quarter, more than 506 megawatts of solar energy came on-line, up 85 percent from a year earlier and the second highest amount ever installed in a single quarter, according to the latest quarterly report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington-based trade group.
Installations are growing, partly because the price for solar panels has plunged.
Florida lags the nation in solar energy, party because the Sunshine State lacks a renewable energy standard or goal, analysts say. New Jersey installed the most solar energy of any state in the first quarter: 174 MW. Florida ranked No. 14 for the quarter, adding less than 3MW, the report showed.
Training veterans was not in the plans when Johnson, an engineer and long-time construction contractor, sought to learn solar-panel installation in 2008 and expand his business into solar-panel installation.
He took courses at several schools, but found none offered enough practical skills in how to manage an installation — from meeting with a client to obtaining government permits — to serve the needs of contractors.
Soon, Johnson decided to start his own training program, which he calls the only all-solar school licensed by the Florida Department of Education and affiliated with the prestigious standards group Underwriters Laboratories.
Johnson said his Institute has trained more than 500 people since opening in 2010, many from the nearby Caribbean. That’s partly because electricity costs tend to be much higher in the Caribbean than the U.S., spurring demand for renewable options, Johnson said. Few students come from Florida.
The Institute’s building uses solar panels to power its operations and produces enough solar energy to also power two average-size homes and “never have to pay an electric bill,” Johnson said.