Addison County sees rise in clean energy jobs

BRISTOL — When Dave Cobb started Bristol Electronics back in the early 1980s, he was installing TV satellite dishes — those big ones that looked like they could fly you to the moon and back. In those days, it was just Dave running the entire show — chief cook and bottle washer, as they say.
He added an employee, his son-in-law in 2000, and his daughter, Chris Marion, in 2003.
But in 2010, Bristol Electronics saw a new opening and switched gears to installing solar panels on rooftops and in area residents’ yards.
And business, relatively speaking, boomed.
Over the next two years he and Marion, who would become the business manager and solar engineer for the installations, hired three employees focused on outdoor installations, and another two people inside the store to handle the office work and design — and today, with Cobb moving into retirement, Marion is looking to add another outdoor installer and indoor person to help continue the business’s growth.
It’s been a good ride.
“We’ve grown our business and added employees, had fun and still expect solar installations to continue,” Marion said recently in a brief interview crammed within a busy day. She noted, though, that future growth is not without its concerns.
A specific state rate incentive on a kilowatt-per-hour basis for solar power is to be cut in half, from two cents to one cent, and a federal investment tax credit of the initial purchase of a solar unit is to be cut from 30 to 26 percent starting Jan. 1, 2020 — which means, Marion said, that while buying solar “is still a smart choice, the return on investment will take slightly longer.”
The growth at Bristol Electronics over the past decade mirrors the growth in renewable energy, as a business sector, throughout the state.
Vermont currently has the nation’s highest per capita employment rate in clean energy at 5.7 percent of its workforce. According to the recently released 2019 Vermont Clean Energy Industry Report, the sector employs nearly 18,900 workers with 782 of those employed in Addison County. Growth boomed in the early years, about a decade ago, and has settled down as the industry has matured.
Director of Vermont’s Clean Energy Development Fund Andrew Perchlik explained that the maturity of the sector has more people working in clean energy full-time with fewer part-time employees. In the past year, the number of overall clean energy employees grew by 126 workers (which includes all aspects of renewable energy from manufacturer to installation to lawyers), while the number of full-time workers rose by 3,424 employees.
Construction remains the cornerstone of clean energy employment, making up 44 percent of the 18,900 jobs, while wholesale trade is in second with 22 percent of workers. (See charts.) But expectations are for the industry to see more modest growth going forward.
“I’m not expecting booming growth” like in the early years of clean energy, Perchlik said. Rather he predicts the sector will continue to grow steadily at about the same rate as the past few years.
Sen. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, who is chair of the Senate Energy Committee, nonetheless, still sees lots of room for growth in the sector.
“As we continue to build out our energy programs we’re going to hire more and more people, almost exclusively Vermonters,” he said, adding that by producing energy within the state Vermont is able to pump a lot of new money into the local economy.
“Every time we start supplying energy for ourselves in-state, we stop exporting our energy dollars out of state,” he explained, thus supporting the state’s economy.
While the well-established solar industry in Vermont needs fewer part-time employees than it did in its early stages, both Sen. Bray and Perchlik see this as a call for the state to focus on other types of renewable energy, particularly thermal energy and the electrification of transportation (See chart Figure 5).
Bray also believes the state must continue to increase the size and scope of Vermont’s clean energy programs to meet the growing threat of climate change. That call has been taken up by the Climate Economy Action Center of Addison County (CEAC). The CEAC’s goal is to use carbon reduction as a way to improve the local economy and envisions a local economy that does not rely on fossil fuels.
“If we really move quickly in that direction, Addison County would be at the forefront of what would basically be a new economy,” said CEAC board member and New Haven resident Spence Putnam.
The report also found a mismatch between available clean energy jobs and those seeking employment, a problem which is common across many industries in the state. Clean energy employers indicated increased difficulties in hiring experienced and qualified workers.
This is likely partially due to Vermont’s low unemployment rate of 2.35 which is well below the national average. But, Vermonters without a high school degree have an above average unemployment rate of 9.5%. The report recommends support for training and educational programs as a way to improve the match between the needs of employers and potential employees.
The Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC), headed by Executive Director Fred Kenney, is working with the Addison County Workforce Alliance to ensure that the training and education employers need is being offered in Addison County, or is available to residents in other locations.
For the first time since the annual report started in 2014, the report provides information about the clean energy employment in each county.
Addison County is home to 4.1 percent of the state’s clean energy employees with clean energy jobs making up 3.9 percent of employment in the county.
Chittenden County is a clear frontrunner with 8.5 percent of its jobs related to clean energy. Rutland has 4.5 percent, Bennington 4.7 percent, Washington 6.9 percent and Essex 7.2 percent. Clean energy employment in Addison County has grown approximately 1.8 percent over the past year, according to the data researcher for the Department of Public Service.
“As a rural county one of the things we’re seeing is that we’re home to a lot of energy generated,” Bray said. But most of the companies, and their workers, are located in more populous areas.
Companies such as SunCommon are based in Washington County, but frequently build in Addison County. “We get the benefit of a solar array, but the jobs are counted towards a different county,” explained Kenney.
Kenney, Putnam and Bray all see room for improvement in Addison County’s ability to create jobs in the sector, particularly in weatherization and other energy efficiency upgrades.
Meanwhile, Chris Marion is looking toward a future with substantial upside in the solar market still in her sights. “Solar is not dead at all,” she said, adding that it may no longer be the boom days, but steady growth is still on the horizon.

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