By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
A white trailer parked in downtown Missoula on a rainy weekend wouldn’t normally draw much attention, unless it’s Earth Day and the trailer happens to be a mobile classroom dedicated to the latest in solar technology.
OnSite Energy, a Bozeman-based company that designs and installs solar-specific projects around the state, joined Missoula College in unveiling the new mobile classroom at Caras Park.
There, Conor Darby – co-founder of OnSite – considered renewable energy and the industry booming around it.
“When I first tried to enter the solar market in 2003, nobody would hire me without experience,” said Darby. “I’ve seen other people facing that same problem, even as recently as last year. With this, they can get good classroom-based instruction and use this to get the applied education.”
Several large solar projects are planned around the state this summer, promising new jobs in a rapidly growing field. But like several other emerging industries in Montana, a shortage of skilled workers threatens to slow the pace of development.
To ramp up the training, the Montana University System applied for several grants to fund the mobile training lab. It won support from the National Science Foundation, NorthWestern Energy and OnSite to develop and deploy the $110,000 mobile classroom.
Brady Layton, director of the Energy Technology Program at Missoula College, said the facility is the first of its kind in the state. He joined Darby over the weekend in showcasing the classroom’s accessories.
“It will allow us to compete with other solar training centers in Colorado and New Mexico, ” said Layton. “Solar energy is one of the fastest growing sectors in renewable energy globally. With this new mobile training facility, we’ll keep hands-on education local, and help move Montana into a leadership position in the renewable energy sector.”
“It’s the first of its kind that we’ve touched,” said Darby, a part-time instructor at Missoula College. “It’s being deployed a lot more in California and other urban markets for people who want back-up power. You can program when you use energy from the grid.”
Using the mobile lab, students also learn best practices for installation, wiring methods and battery management. The trailer serves as a companion to the Energy Technology Program at Missoula College, where students explore subjects ranging from fuel cells to bio-energy.
Upon graduation, Layton said, students often find work in Missoula at McKinstry, Energetechs and Blue Marble, among others.
“I even had a student come through a few years ago with a masters in economics who works at the Belgium embassy in Washington D.C.,” said Layton. “Now he writes economic and energy policy for the county of Belgium.”