Those looking to find work in the fast-growing field of green and renewable technology don't have to relocate to a major city — there are opportunities right in the heart of the Tennessee Valley.
While the area is known for its heavy industry and agriculture sector, just north of the Tennessee River in Limestone County, the state's first accredited training center for renewable energy technology is preparing people for these future jobs.
Calhoun Community College's Alabama Center for Excellence in Clean Energy Technology, located at the Decatur campus, could be a role model for other colleges to follow. It offers two-year degrees in renewable energy, heating and air-conditioner repair, and electrician training, as well as short-time certification classes.
The 11,000-square-foot facility, which formerly housed a rehabilitation center, was renovated to be bronze-certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Now it uses at least 51 percent less energy.
The building features a 22-kilowatt photovoltaic system — solar panels converting sunlight into electricity — that provides about 80 percent of its power. Director Jerry Adams said the facility has geothermal units that provide the most comprehensive training in Alabama and possibly the Southeast. A rainwater harvester collects roof runoff and uses the water in toilets and landscape irrigation, with an inch of rain producing about 6 gallons of water.
Most of students begin taking classes without jobs, but Calhoun's cooperative program helps most of them find work once their course work is completed, Adams said. Students can apply their acquired knowledge into business ventures such as solar panel consultation, sales and installation and energy efficiency consultation for companies and homeowners.
On the other side of the river, General Electric's plant is churning out state-of-the-art refrigerators after investing $43 million and adding 34 jobs.
In October 2010, GE announced plans to invest $432 million to establish four refrigeration design and manufacturing centers of excellence in the U.S., geared toward bringing new "green" jobs by 2014. Decatur was one of those selected.
The first energy efficient top-freezer refrigerators, in sizes 16-, 17- and 18-cubic-foot, began rolling off the line last summer. The 18-cubic-foot refrigerators will be geared toward the builder market for new homes, apartments and other construction sites, interim plant manager Scott Ossewaarde said.
GE's strengths historically have been in manufacturing and technology, so the company recommitted itself to manufacturing in the U.S. and realized the importance of the "green" movement.
In 2011, GE adopted a foam-blowing agent called cyclopentane to reduce the Decatur plant's greenhouse gas emissions that are produced during the insulating process of manufacturing the top-freezer refrigerators. The switch to cyclopentane from the plant's former foam-blowing agent has helped cut greenhouse gas emissions from the Decatur facility by 99 percent.
The Decatur plant received $6.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for machinery and equipment to produce energy-efficient refrigerators locally, said GE spokeswoman Kim Freeman. In addition to the $43 million investment, the company invested $16 million to transition to the new product insulation process, Freeman said.
Tiffeny Owens can be reached at 256-340-2440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
General Electric's Decatur plant and Calhoun Community College's Alabama Center for Excellence in Clean Energy Technology are local examples of green technology in action. Facts about the two:
Location: 2328 Point Mallard Drive S.E.
Total workers: 1,000
Average employee pay: $21.85 an hour. In May, GE began hiring new production workers at $11 an hour. Employees who work second and third shifts receive an extra $1.
Decatur plant size: 850,000 square feet
Location: Decatur campus on U.S. 31
Funded: With $3.4 million U.S. Department of Labor grant for equipment and scholarship.
Degrees offered: Associates in renewable energy, heating and air-conditioner repair, and electrician training, plus short-time certification classes.
More information: www.calhoun.edu
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