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Generating power, training workers: Madison solar program recruiting sixth class of solar workers

Generating power, training workers: Madison solar program recruiting sixth class of solar workers

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Hattie Russell

Hattie Russell is one of 15 people to complete Madison's GreenPower worker training program. Russell, 23, spent the summer of 2018 installing solar panels on city buildings before landing a full-time job with the engineering department.

Hattie Russell didn’t know anything about solar energy when she heard about a summer job opportunity installing solar panels for the city of Madison.

She had some basic mechanical understanding from helping her father work on cars, but her primary work experience was in fast food.

“I knew ‘righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.’ How to read a tape measure,” Russell said. “I was willing to learn something new.”

Madison solar panels

Solar panels are seen atop the city of Madison's Engineering Operations Facility, in foreground above, and a Streets Division facility, at rear, both on the South Side, in this 2019 photo. 

Over the summer of 2018, she installed solar panels on two city buildings as part of GreenPower, a 4-year-old program that offers job training in one of the fastest-growing professions while helping the city meet its sustainability goals.

For the first time, Russell said, she was excited to get up and go to a job where she was learning new things and experiencing new things every day.

“You’d be on the rooftop and watching the sun rise while putting panels in,” she said. “It was unlike any feeling I’d had.”

Now a maintenance technician with the city’s engineering department, Russell is one of 15 people — including five women and 11 people of color — to complete the GreenPower job training program, which is now recruiting applicants for the 2021 class.

GreenPower workers have installed more than 17 systems on city facilities, the bulk of the city’s solar capacity, which can now supply about 2.5% of the energy used in city buildings.

Trainees earn $16.90 an hour, working full-time from spring through fall.

No prior construction or electrical experience is required, though applicants are expected to be familiar with hand tools, know how to navigate the internet and be able to do basic math. They also need to be able to lift 50 pounds, climb ladders and work on rooftops.

But the job isn’t just grunt work.

Russell learned how to plan and prepare the buildings, installing conduit and wiring, installing electrical inverters — and for the first time she understood what it means to have a job that doesn’t feel like work.

Hattie Russell

Hattie Russell is one of 15 people to complete Madison's GreenPower worker training program. Russell, 23, spent the summer of 2018 installing solar panels on city buildings before landing a full-time job with the engineering department.

“I’m someone who likes to learn new things,” she said. “I like working with my hands. I tried going to college, but I have a harder time learning reading a book and looking at a screen.”

While there’s no certificate or degree, the program is designed to position trainees for jobs as solar installers or other construction trades.

For Russell, it led to a permanent city job where she’s now learning to work on heating and air conditioning systems and plumbing as well as with electricity.

“There’s still a lot to learn. I want to just keep moving up and up,” Russell said, adding, “I still get to do solar, which makes me happy.”

Fave 5: Reporter Chris Hubbuch's favorite stories of 2020

My favorite stories to write are those that require me to learn about something new and force me to see the world from a different perspective. There were many such stories to tell during this extraordinary year, though none of my top five were directly related to the pandemic.

I’d known Wisconsin was a big producer of mink pelts, but I didn’t know that most of the North American fur trade moved through a Stoughton business that traced its lineage back to the Hudson Bay Company. The folks at Saga Furs, who took over the operations of North American Fur Association, were kind enough to teach me about the business and let us photograph them.

Few landscapes have captivated me like the Driftless region, where I was fortunate enough to live for nearly 15 years. It’s an enchanting place with unrivaled beauty, and, it turns out, is also highly resilient to climate change, providing habitat for species that left other parts of southern Wisconsin with the retreating glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. Also, never pass up a chance to spend time in the woods while on the clock.

Journalists spend a lot of time writing about problems -- after all, it’s not news when a plane lands safely -- so it’s refreshing to be able to write about solutions. In this case, a very simple solution -- farming the way it was done for centuries -- fixes so much. It can help farmers turn a profit, keep soil where it belongs, protect lakes and streams, and even fight climate change. And the Gruenfelders are good people running a quality farm on some of the most scenic land in the world.

Full disclosure: for the better part of five decades many of my happiest moments have occurred while riding a bike. I’ve also seen how outdoor recreation opportunities played a role in economic development of two cities I’ve called home -- Chattanooga and La Crosse. So the prospect of developing a city-wide offroad trail network excites me for personal reasons as well as its potential to improve the quality of life for all residents.

This was one of the more difficult stories I wrote this year, largely because of the complexity of the contamination and remediation concerns but also the long history of the plant and redevelopment efforts that weren't familiar to me as a recent transplant. It didn't help that I wrote the story from my daughter's hospital room during a one-day procedure that took four days. (She's fine.)

topical alert
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After a 350-year-old Canadian fur trading company went bankrupt just as Wisconsin mink farmers were beginning their harvest, a Finnish competitor is breathing new life into the state’s oldest industry.

topical alert top story
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As the climate changes, species move to adapt. Preserving these unique areas can help them survive.

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For an industry battered by unstable commodity prices, rising costs, market constraints and extreme weather, grassland farming represents a bright spot.

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Madison has long enjoyed a reputation as a two-wheel haven. But opportunities for off-road adventures are limited, usually involving a trip to a neighboring community or beyond. A new plan seeks to change that.

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“This was a lot more than Weinerville,” said one resident who hired an environmental law firm to report on potential contamination. “It’s a big evolution from a century ago when the Mayer brothers came up here from Chicago."

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