The sometimes forgotten green jobs


A great deal of attention has focused on solar panels and electric vehicles. President Obama, for example, is touring a battery cell plant in Michigan today, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is visiting a gasoline-to-propane engine conversion company in Virginia.

Often overlooked, however, is another green technology opportunity -- retrofitting commercial buildings, which by some estimates, consume between 37 and 42 percent of the state's power supply for lighting and ventilation.

San Francisco International Airport recently spent $1.6 million to replace lighting in Terminal 3 with a new generation of energy-saving fixtures and lighting control systems.

That project was made possible by a pilot training program in San Mateo County to upgrade the skills of electricians to perform large and small-scale green tech conversions. A portion of the funding is coming from a $5 million U.S. Dept. of Labor grant to the state of California.

"We have to not only be able to install the light, but we also have to be able to train the people who are using the lighting to make it work efficiently, so that is all part of it. We sell it, and we install it," training instructor D.J. Siegman said.

In one year's time, 79 electricians have gone through the program and have become qualified to work on the SFO project, along with others at the College of San Mateo and smaller commercial buildings.

Contractor Bob Harkins of Armor Electric in Belmont says the green tech training has put electricians to work who had been idled by the downturn in construction activity. Depending on the size of a building, a lighting conversion project can keep electricians busy from three to six months.

"It is putting people to work. I would wish it was putting people to work quicker, but eventually, the ball will start rolling quite a bit more," he said.

The California Advanced Lighting Control Training Program is administered by IBEW, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, at a facility with six classrooms in San Carlos. Similar programs are being set up now in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda and Sacramento counties.

The electricians are being trained to do more than install new energy-saving systems. They will also act as sales people and educators to help building owners understand the payback on the investment.

For example, it's estimated the improvements made at SFO will result in a payback in two years for the $1.6 million spent.

"These are shovel-ready jobs," training director Kathleen Barber said.

Barber says the program does not train people for non-existing jobs.

Depending on the size of a project, a lighting conversion can keep electricians working from three to six months.

"It opens up another field of opportunity for us to pick up more work and to bid on more jobs," electrician Paul Morones said. Carrie Portis is president of SF Works, which just completed a survey of green jobs. Green jobs will come with federal incentives.

"We have to be patient. We have to encourage these government programs to get out the gate. Businesses are going to need to market them, and consumers are going to need to take them up, and that's how we'll have green jobs," she said.

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