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Sustainable Idaho: ESTEC

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Ricardo Gomez Angel
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This week on Sustainable Idaho, we talked with Vince Bowen, Executive Director of Idaho State University’s ESTEC department. For those who don’t know, ESTEC stands for Energy Systems Technology & Education Center and as stated on their website, ESTEC offers a unique approach to educating students by providing the specific knowledge and skills needed in energy production. The program has been developed to assure that graduates enter the workforce with the precise skills to work in a broad spectrum of electrical, oil, gas, renewable, and allied manufacturing sectors. In this episode, we focus on solar energy and the opportunities ESTEC provides students who want to enter the renewable energy industry.

First we asked Bowen about the opportunities and skills available to students who graduate from one of ESTEC’s three solar-applicable programs: mechanical, electrical, or instrumentation engineering technology. What’s wonderful about these two to four year programs is that you’re almost guaranteed a job right after graduation. In fact, ESTEC’s overall job placement rate is more than 90% for recent graduates. In addition, engineering technician jobs pay well right off the bat and you are taught skills that are transferable to different energy industries.

We then asked Bowen what the solar job market will look like for recent graduates. Because of the lack of moving parts, Bowen notes that the exceptional job growth might not be maintained at the high levels we’re seeing right now. Electricity is produced when sunlight, or photons from the sun, hit solar cells and break off electrons from atoms. These electrons flow together creating electricity captured by the panels. That is how solar works without moving parts. All of that said, the industry is hot and Bowen references the Nez Perce Tribe in Lapwai, Idaho to demonstrate this. According to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “American solar jobs have increased 167% over the past decade, which is five times faster than the overall job growth rate in the U.S. economy.” This growth in jobs means that demand for workers far outstrips the supply of people with needed skills. ESTEC’s training provides folks to fill that gap.

We also touched on coal and asked whether people working in the coal industry could easily transfer to the renewable energy sectors. Bowen explained that the electricity and engineering technicians could, but folks specializing in coal plant operations would likely require more training. He went on to talk about the future of the coal industry. Bowen said that coal is being ushered out because of investors' shifting interest towards green energy. To add to Bowen's point, investment firms like BlackStone with a history in funding fossil fuels are now switching investments from carbon intensive energy to renewables. This is in part because the financial risks associated with fossil fuels are growing in addition to public pressure to de-invest.

Bowen also mentioned that solar and wind are increasingly contributing to the electrical grid in the U.S. which made us wonder about the grid’s capacity to adapt to more renewable energy supplies. The way Bowen talked about America’s energy grid, it sounded like it has a long way to go before it’ll be ready to rely solely on renewable energy. But the changes needed provide vast opportunities for folks with the skills that ESTEC provides. These opportunities will continue to grow as entities like the federal Office of Electricity lead efforts to modernize the grid.

Overall, ESTEC provides plentiful opportunities for students interested in clean energy through hands-on programs that prepare them for a growing solar industry. Next week, we’ll continue talking about solar energy as we learn about solar capacity at the state levels, drawbacks of solar, and why people invest in it.

ISU ESTEC:

https://www.isu.edu/estec/

Grid Modernization:

https://www.energy.gov/oe/activities/technology-development/grid-modernization-and-smart-grid

Solar Job Growth:

https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/solar-energy-united-states

Blackstone De-Investment:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-06/private-equity-is-ditching-fossil-fuels-over-climate-change-concerns

Fossil Fuel Financial Risks:

https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/06/20/climate-change-economy-impacts/

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Eizaak Jordan was born and raised in McCall, Idaho. He spent summers in Yellowpine, Idaho, near the Frank Church Wilderness Area. Eizaak's days were characterized by interacting with the natural world in both locations, curating his passion for Idaho’s ecosystems. He is currently an ISU Political Science student and President of ISU’s Sustainability Club. After graduation, he will be applying for a graduate program in environmental politics, which will hopefully open opportunities to gain full employment doing environmental advocacy. Eizaak spends his free time reading, cooking, and fly fishing.
Ailie Maclean was born and raised in Alaska but moved to Kimberly, Idaho right before high school. Ailie is an undergraduate Political Science and Global Studies major at ISU. She is going into her last year at ISU as Vice President of Idaho State’s student government, ASISU, and has served as an Honors Program Mentor, Communications Envoy, and ASISU Supreme Court Justice in past years. In her free time she enjoys reading, longboarding, hiking, watching anime, and swimming in unique places (Silfra in Iceland for example). Ailie plans on studying environmental, or some variation of international law, after taking a gap year to travel and work abroad.