Two guys on a roof installing a solar panel

Energy and all its concerns are being solved every day in conversations held by big media pundits and dinner table enthusiasts. The problem is that no one is doing the work – or at least, almost no one.

Headlines will often read that jobs are plentiful in solar and wind industries, but this is not a reality for many employees in related fields around Ohio. Also, many electric customers who pay a surcharge for renewable energy to turn on their lights and charge their smart phones do so purchasing Renewable Energy Credits from a regional marketplace, which only indirectly supports the transition to a clean grid. Thankfully, current Ohio law requires Ohio’s investor owned utilities (IOU), like AEP or First Energy, to generate more electricity from renewable energy each year, reaching 12.5 percent by 2027.

In December, Ohioans from all around the Buckeye State testified their convictions to Public Utility Commission of Ohio (PUCO) board members holding an important hearing. A resounding message spoke of the good it will do for skilled workers that build the proposed 400MW solar system in Highland County.

But, the testimony also gave voice to fears about a changing climate and urged the decision makers in attendance to act now and approve what would be the largest solar array in Ohio. As more private utilities announce plans for utility-scale projects, workers and construction companies need to be brought to the table to coordinate both labor schedules and wages. The shortage in skilled labor can easily create substantial inefficiencies during construction and those costs would be passed on to Ohio families. Open dialogue among IOUs, trade associations and unions will be essential to meeting the threshold required by law.

Where does your power come from?

Chances are your power originates hundreds of miles away produced from pulverized coal dust or combusted natural gas. Ohio’s energy mix is nothing to brag about as it is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, but another consequence is that there are a few inefficiencies from transmitting it far distances over power lines. Many of the decisions made related to electricity in Ohio are decided by the market but options are changing as renewable energy becomes more widespread. Solar and wind make up only a single percent of all electricity currently, but Ohio should expect to see rapid changes in energy choices in the near future.

Cleveland Public Power’s (CPP) Facebook page has over 2,000 followers who fire at will in the comment sections when the utility posts about a power outage, but CPP has been doing great things, though, for its customers which don’t share the same degree of attention.

The public utility has acted as catalyst for clean energy projects by making large energy purchases annually and over a long term on a handful of occasions in the last five years. Out of the 53 municipal electric utilities in Ohio, Cleveland’s utility has fought off private takeover and reduced hikes on electricity prices, reportedly saving hundreds of millions for customers.

Recently, the Cuyahoga County government partnered with CPP and helped coordinate funding to collect solar energy on restored land that served as a former dump, and the public utility bought the power over twenty years at a fixed rate through a Public Purchase Agreement.

The city on the lake will be using its great wind resources too, after a utility-scale wind project called the Icebreaker is complete. The federal Department of Energy (DOE) recently gave the six-turbines a green light with no need for further environmental studies; additionally, the DOE is looking for funding internally, which could speed up the timeline and bring more wind energy to the grid sooner. Those massive turbines will be out of sight, suctioned to the lake bed’s basin eight miles off shore.

Headline projects boasting megawatts of clean energy are exciting to a nerd who follows these closely, but jobs provided in manufacturing and construction are technically completed once everything is fabricated and constructed. People on the job often even holler to each other, “We worked ourselves out of a job!”

Proper wages and benefits need to be in place then to attract talented people presently working in other fields to now pursue skilled trade work. The benefits of future projects are even more immense to organized and employee-owned companies that share the revenues of the work with its workers – what a novel concept.

The barriers of entry into skilled trade work can be financial and cultural, but the current favorable outlook in construction provides a great opportunity to those who are not participating as much in the field, like minority and non-male groups. If the industry in Ohio could successfully train more people, when times are good, those doing the work could begin to lift themselves out of careers with stagnant wages.

Athens County is addressing this with their regional energy council. Columbus and Cleveland have signed Community Benefit Agreements to provide pathways to good-paying careers, but it remains to be seen how well these policies are carried out over the years and who benefits from the opportunities available.

Distressed areas of Ohio – including Highland County where the 400MW solar system may someday stand – would benefit greatly from big dollar projects that provide stimulus to the local economy with infrastructure dollars sorely needed. Aside from the great sun exposure the area has, the exact site is adjacent to high voltage transmission lines which could even send power to Columbus, if necessary. At one point though, the project will have over 4,000 construction workers, many of whom will be traveling from out of town to help complete the work.

Electrical union IBEW 575 Business Manager Dan Shirey feels confident that this project will bring stable, good paying work for local electricians in the Chillicothe area for several years once construction is underway. “We know Hecate Energy,” the potential developer of the 400 MW array, “and have worked with them over the years.” Hecate energy has overseen numerous projects globally and has a good working relationship with the electrical union using their labor when needed. Shirey was also present at the December PUCO hearing on the very same potential Southern Ohio installation. He brought up the disparities present in the region compared to a booming town like Columbus, and one can understand why much more needs to be considered than simply the price per kW/hour in the transition to a clean energy economy.            


To meet what is required by law in 2027, Ohio must electrify over 550,000 homes completely with renewable energy. Many frigid winters and heat waves will be worked through to generate that amount of clean energy, and an unidentified amount of new construction workers must enter the fray to complete the task or utilities face big fines set by the state government.

Our grid is full of antiquated technology that allows power to be sent only one way from where a spinning turbine generates the electricity send overhead to your home’s outlets. Smart meters are becoming essential parts of energy system and have been doling out benefits to the Portland, Oregon area as they are integrated into every household since utilities began incentivizing their use over ten years ago. As power is demanded, smart grids use technology to communicate more easily with all the parts involved allowing for a smoother process of generating, transmitting and distributing green energy to residents and businesses. Smart cities are harnessing technology to address the problems that cities and regions face today to mitigate challenges and eliminate future scenarios more difficult than ones we face today.

Regardless of the process, a community approach and manageable timeline will give Ohioans a pathway towards an economy powered by its own.

Apprentice electrician through the local electrical union IBEW 683’s program, with experience installing over 500kW of solar around Ohio, John McDermott also leads a  educational program based on sustainability in Cleveland, Ohio for high schoolers involved in a youth employment program. He has been voting independently since 2007.

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