In my last post, I mentioned how I was searching for jobs in the renewable energy industry in the US – and had a couple of possible options lined up. Soon after, I was lucky enough to be offered a project management role with a new construction company called Konisto – who specialize in installing large scale solar farms throughout the United States – an opportunity that I couldn’t sign up for quickly enough!
Much of the past couple months have been spent learning the ropes of construction, the ins and outs of solar on a large scale, and getting into some kind of work pattern even though the jobs are all over the country so travel is very much a part of life for the foreseeable future. On top of that, small companies in a rapidly growing field are always interesting – so it’s certainly been an interesting time.
The scale of some of these systems is pretty cool – and the ones I’ve worked on to date are tiny compared to what’s starting to occur all over the world. I started out at a 1.5MW project east of Los Angeles, and have since moved up north to a small town called Los Banos – about two hours east of San Francisco, on a 2MW single-axis tracking system.
To give some idea of scale – the 2MW system that we’re currently on will cover approximately 13 acres, and consists of over 8500 solar panels mounted on a tracking system. It’ll take about six weeks to build from start to finish, will employ around 15 people full time, with a maximum labour force of approximately 50 men.
To compare, there are currently sites being built down in Arizona and southern California which are over 500MW – deploying literally millions of panels and taking years to build. It’s also worth noting that I drove past the San Onofre nuclear plant the other week, which is a (now inoperative) nuclear reactor on the coastline between LA and San Diego, and at full capacity it had a maximum power output of over 2GW (2000MW)… with a footprint many many times smaller than these solar systems. This kind of perspective is worth remembering – if only to understand the scope of how much needs to be done.
I keep coming back to it, but if you’re at all interested in energy or renewables or sustainability, 2014 was a pretty amazing year. In the US, renewables accounted for 48% of new generation capacity (this is made even more incredible when you recognise that the country is going through an unprecedented surge in natural gas and oil production due to the fracking boom). Investment increased 16% to $310billion worldwide. An agreement was finally reached between China and the USA in regards to capping carbon emissions. 400,000 people marched on the streets of New York to demand climate change action. Residential solar companies such as Solarcity saw huge demand for their products. Electric cars such as the Tesla Model S were recognized both as great vehicles and an environmentally sound choice. Universities and public funds worldwide began to divest from fossil fuels – not just due to public pressure, but because the financial risks are increasing all the time. The list goes on.
All of this news is still a long way from the changes we need, but it certainly shows that the trend is finally shifting. A big part of that shift will come from a switch towards solar – because the efficiencies keep getting better, the price keeps on coming down, and the simple fact that it’s a technology which uses an unlimited resource, mean that this will only continue going forward (which contrasts markedly to fossil fuels, which can only increase in price as the total supply decreases.)
The next few years look especially bright – especially in the US, where an estimated 20,000MW will be installed in 2015/2016. This is pretty exciting to me both on a personal level, and on a larger scale. Whatever you believe about climate change and global warming, the reality of using finite fossil fuels for an energy source is that one day, they will run out. Getting involved with renewables and the shift away from the carbon economy that we live in today, is therefore an incredible opportunity to be a part of something much greater – where the benefits are bigger than just the environmental ones.
This is highlighted on a daily basis to me on a couple of levels – firstly with some of the guys I work with who could not be happier just to be working, doing an honest days work and putting some money in the bank. On that note, the solar industry added over 30,000 jobs in the US in 2014 – and now employs over 175,000 people – proving that it’s a powerful engine of economic growth and job creation. And on top of that, these are solid, decently paid jobs – these guys can earn great money in an environment which is safe, reasonably clean, and isn’t as strenuous as many labour jobs. On the engineering/project management side, it’s even better – and reimbursement is well above the average.
The trickle down effects of these projects is also evident – a proportion of every weekly paycheck that myself and every one of my colleagues get as we work on these projects ends up in the pockets of local business owners in the region. I’ve begun to see for myself just what some of smalltown America looks like, and a few more projects like the one I’m working on now bringing investment into communities that were hit pretty hard over the past five years cannot be a bad thing.
These impacts are just the local ones that I can see – there are far bigger ones at play – highlighted far more succinctly in this opinion piece I read on The Guardian recently, and well worth five minutes of your time.
And on that note, I’ll sign off. One of the best things about the current nomadic lifestyle that I’m living is the fact that I get to see some more of the US – I’m just two hours from some of America’s best known National Parks – Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia to name a few. I spent last weekend exploring the redwoods down south (an incredible experience, and one which I’ll focus on in a different post) and I’m getting an early start tomorrow morning to get my first look at the wonders of Yosemite.