DENVER — A program is underway in Colorado to retrain people who lost their jobs in the coal or oil and gas industry so they can get the skills they need to install solar panels.
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment gave a company based in Paonia on the Western Slope a $400,000 matching grant as part of a program to help workers furloughed from other energy sector jobs that are in decline.
The money was used by Solar Energy International to start Solar Ready Colorado, which promises to train unemployed miners, veterans and workers in the oil and gas industry.
The goal is to recruit and train 350 people for various jobs in the solar industry. Students can take a single course as an introduction to solar power or more than 200 hours of training in the Solar Professionals Certificate Program.
Chris Turek, spokesman for Solar Energy International, said the company recruited coal miners because of their focus on safety and experience with mechanics and electrical engineering. Those skills can easily be transferred to the solar industry, he said.
"People are becoming more and more open to it because they're starting to realize it's just another part of the energy sector," Turek said. "At the end of the day, we need electricity, and that need for electricity is just growing."
Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association President Rebecca Cantwell said solar energy programs are bearing fruit, the Denver Post reported. "We're going to see more and more of this because there's more and more awareness that the coal industry is in real trouble," Cantwell said.
Stuart Sanderson, who is president of the Colorado Mining Association, said other jobs like the solar industry usually don't pay as much as jobs in the oil and gas industry or coal mining. The average mining job in Colorado paid $91,000 in 2015, according to the National Mining Association. Solar installers can make up to $25 an hour, or about $50,000 a year.
Colorado has about 5,000 solar jobs, mainly installers, and 400 solar companies, according to the Solar Foundation. Those Colorado solar jobs are also expected to grow by 10 percent.