Plugging In

Plugging In

Construction has begun on a crystalline box 15 miles outside Chicago that, when complete, will make the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute (IN-TECH) the nation’s largest outdoor facility for training union electricians to install small-scale renewable energy technology.

As it is with many trades, the best way for electricians to learn renewable energy installation is through hands-on experience. At IN-TECH, members of the two main trade groups—the International Brotherhood Of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association—will clamber up to the roof to install working solar photovoltaic panels. That roof is clad partly in asphalt shingles and partly in metal so Local 134 union members can gain experience with different types of buildings.

Legat Architects, which designed the facility, folded several slanted building faces into a jagged crystal shape, eschewing the concrete box in favor of an eye-catching form that can be seen from the busy I-294 corridor. A strip of red, blue, and green LEDs further electrifies the project’s profile, while working models of wind turbine components are visible through transparent portions of a nearby building’s facade.

“It’s not just something to look at. You can see what it is and how it works,” said Alan Bombick, a principal at Legat Architects. “That’s a real advantage for the contractors. And for the electricians, it’s training their workforce for where the future of power is going to go.”

Residential and other small-scale solar projects are more affordable than ever, due in part to the falling price of installation—historically a prohibitive cost for many rooftop projects in the U.S. Last year installation costs for residential and commercial solar projects fell by roughly 12 to 15 percent from the year before.

Training facilities like IN-TECH are helping electricians develop expertise and increase competition in the solar installation market. “You’re really working with the real thing here,” said Bombick. “All of these systems are very technical, and the installation is very involved.”

Utility-scale solar projects, however, still drive the U.S. market, accounting for a majority of growth in the sector over the last two years. In Germany, where solar energy has at times provided as much as half of the country’s total electricity demand, generous government subsidies have meant a bulk of the country’s solar power comes from small, rooftop panels. China, too, hopes to move its solar development away from massive, remote solar power plants in favor of decentralized projects.

IN-TECH provides training for larger-scale solar fields too. A ground-mounted solar array about the size of a football field will help power the new storage building and a welding lab in the institute’s main building.

As electric utilities increase their share of renewable energy—which needs to be stored when the sun isn’t shining, for example—and cut down on waste, many are expanding off-grid storage. As such, the demo facility at IN-TECH is not just an empty shell for solar panels. Inside the 4,500-square-foot building will be inverters, a heaping block of lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries, and other energy storage technologies that will help the building pursue a net-zero energy balance. Nearby a solar carport can charge up to five electric vehicles using electricity generated on site.

IN-TECH may also drive excess energy back to the grid at times, potentially making it one of the first net-positive buildings in the Midwest.