Tracy Hall of Munster, Indiana has been an electrician for 30 years. He is among the thousands of construction trades workers hit by the current recession, who have seen unemployment in the trades rise to almost 25 percent nationally. But Hall hasn’t had time to sit around getting depressed about the state of the economy. Instead, he’s spent the time when work has been scarce developing a new expertise. As the only union worker in Indiana who is certified as a solar photovoltaic installer by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, and a LEED Accredited Professional by the U.S. Green Building Council, he has become one of Northwest Indiana’s most knowledgeable renewable energy technicians.
“Tracy has single-handedly become one of the experts in the region on renewable energy—and not just the pros and cons of renewable energy, but the installation specifics and the technical aspects of how you build and install solar systems and wind mills,” said Howard Fink, the town administrator of Merrillville, Indiana, where Hall installed solar panels on the town hall building.
Hall’s story shows the positive impact that one determined individual can have on the adoption of clean energy practices by his workplace and local community. He convinced his labor union, Local 697 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), to offer a journey-level class in solar photovoltaics and then set about obtaining the skills he would need in order to be able to teach the class. Hall attended workshops offered by the Illinois Solar Energy Association, studied LEED green building standards at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, participated in online courses offered by Solar Energy International and graduated from solar installation classes at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. He also went to an IBEW training-the-trainer course on photovoltaics so that he would be prepared not only to do installations but also to teach about them.
“We’ve got to start making changes if we want our children to have a future,” Hall said. “It’s become a passion for me. I just want to leave this world knowing that I did something that was meaningful.”
After attending so many courses and workshops, Hall had the training and the passion, but he still lacked one thing: hands-on practice installing a solar PV system. When he found out about an Indiana Office of Energy Development (OED) grant program designed to support the purchase and installation of alternative energy systems, he decided to apply. He approached the town administrator of Merrillville about a project that would begin with Hall teaching a solar PV installation class to journey-level electricians and apprentices through his labor union and culminate with the trainees installing solar panels on the roof of the Merrillville town hall. The trainees would donate their work, and, if approved, the grant would help the city purchase the solar PV system.
“We wanted to do the project as a training opportunity with the local unions so the building trades had the opportunity to get accustomed to installing these systems,” said Howard Fink, Merrillville’s town administrator. “We also did it as an educational tool for residents to learn about the environmental benefits of renewable energy.”
As soon as Hall and Fink got word that their project had been approved for a $23,500 Alternative Power and Energy Grant, Hall began training 12 of his union members in solar photovoltaics using the IBEW’s national curriculum. In March 2009, the trainees installed a small five-kilowatt solar PV system on the Merrillville town hall building. It was the first commercial photovoltaic installation in Lake County.
Since then, Hall has continued to be a tireless advocate for renewable energy in Northwest Indiana and throughout the state. He applied for and received another OED grant, this one for $73,500, to install solar panels on the roof of Local 697’s new union hall, which they hope will achieve LEED gold certification. Hall also trained electricians at IBEW Local 531, whose hands on experience came from installing solar panels on a parochial school in Porter County.
Hall says he prefers to work within labor unions, because “it’s important that people earn a living wage and have health benefits and retirement benefits. When you get work outside of the local union, you don’t have those benefits in the construction industry.”
Despite Hall’s successes, his effort to promote renewable energy has not been without its challenges. Demand is slow for renewable energy systems in Indiana, which means that Hall hasn’t been able to find full-time work in his new area of expertise. In part, this is because Indiana has few policies to spur local demand for renewable energy. According to Laura Arnold of the Indiana Renewable Energy Association, several attempts to pass a state-level renewable energy standard have failed. Another challenge, Arnold said, is the economy. “There is a strong interest in renewable energy in our state, just like there is in most other states, but with people’s uncertainty about the economy, they are just not making a lot of discretionary purchases.”
Hall is hoping that if Indiana state legislators won’t act to create a renewable energy market in the state, Congress will. The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, but the Senate has yet to pass a similar bill. “A federal renewable energy standard would be very helpful,” Hall said. “And if we could put a cap [and price] on carbon, that would help fund these kinds of projects.”
Regardless of what happens at the federal level, Fink believes renewable energy use will increase in Indiana. “The public attitude toward renewable energy is strong … As time goes on and costs go down and as more people are certified in installing the systems, you’re going to see them installed in homes and businesses in our region and around the country,” Fink said.
In the meantime, Hall plans to keep pursuing his passion for clean energy. “My family respects me for what I’m doing,” he said. “When I did the Merrillville project, when I came home that day, my wife was just glowing. To me, that was really worth putting a lot of effort into this work.”