• Estefania Mitre

Pandemic's Impact on Renewable Energy Programs

While the Covid-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty, weaken the American economy, the department of renewable energy at El Paso Community College, the only technical training of its type in El Paso, has been impacted as college enrollment keeps dropping.

It has been over a year since an extended spring break turned into a series of alternatives to in-person education and distance learning challenges. Universities and communities continue to see a decrease in enrollment, thus completing programs as students pause their education.

Colleges have been under the shadow of the coronavirus, but the nation's community college system has been hit hard by the pandemic, especially technical programs.

Nationally, associate’s degree programs and certificates at two-year public colleges enrollment has dropped disproportionately. Only last year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse estimates, the enrollment rate decreased by 8.7% when the national average faced a 1.8% increase mainly attributed to the adversities carried by the sudden change to online and hybrid learning at these institutions.

A National Student Clearinghouse report showed college enrollments from recent high school graduates dropped by 6.8 percent in 2020, more than four times compared to the 2019 rate.

El Paso Community College (EPCC) has not been an exception to this trend that has been on the rise before the pandemic hit the border city.

Particularly in the Renewable Energy department has shown a decrease of 44% in enrollment from Spring 2020 to 2021. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the program showed a steady increase in enrollment up to 2020 when in the fall semester, enrollment dropped below numbers registered in 2017.

According to Dr. Valerio, the Dean at the EPCC Advanced Technology Center, the program never stopped, and EPCC offered hybrid classes as most of the program's content required "technical training at its core."

“We were doing 50% [online] - 50% [in-person].. Right now, we are doing a little bit more to the 50% [in-person] because we noticed the students need more practical skills," said Dr. Valerio.

However, as Jose Alvarenga, the Renewable Energy program coordinator and instructor at EPCC said, most students dropped out since they were more inclined to a "hands-on" experience. Most students decided to halt their training until the community college could restore in-person learning as it was before the pandemic.

Alvarenga has maintained close contact with the students, as he teaches some of the courses offered by the program, and confirmed that "several students" had both financial and health problems related to Covid-19 that made them drop out close to graduation.

Dr. Olga Valerio launched the program in 2016 with the support of a National Science Foundation grant.

As renewable energy technologies emerged and gained popularity in other states, Dr. Valerio launched the program as an opportunity for prospective students.

"At that time, there were no jobs… then I noticed these new technologies; that's when I said it's time to open the program," said Dr. Valerio.

After the first year, the program had five associates of applied science graduates and gave 13 certifications to the first generation during the academic year of Fall 2018 to Spring 2019.

But data from the Fall 2019 EPCC Factbook showed that the graduation rate for both certificate and associate decreased by more than 400%. Dr. Valerio and Alvarenga attributed these numbers to the current health crisis.

As data from the National Student Clearinghouse revealed, technical programs have suffered the most due to the lockdowns and transferring to an online learning environment at a national level.

But, despite the negative numbers, the program coordinator seemed enthusiastic about the program's future as more people get the Covid-19 vaccine in El Paso.

Alvarenga explained the associate's degree in Renewable Energy trains the students to be "under the jurisdiction of a master electrician or a company that has a master electrician directly… because there are regulations to inspections, so you need a legal permit," said Alvarenga.

The master electricians are responsible for installing and repairing electrical systems in residential and commercial spaces, have over three years of experience as an electrician, and fulfill certain hours of training in the field.

According to Alvarenga, the program includes a series of courses on programming, digital systems, ethics, and innovation to offer a forward-thinking in the development of energy-efficient systems, "not only in the installation of solar panels."

"A master electrician cannot build programs because their focus is wiring, but what the renewable energy program offers is a greater understanding for the development and integration of innovative technologies in the renewable energy field," Alvarenga contended.

The program coordinator added that the El Paso workforce needs students with a greater understanding of the development and integration of innovative technologies in the renewable energy field.

"What they are trying to do with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is to create an organization of professional renewable energy installers. [Since] Texas does not yet require installers to be certified."

Currently, if anyone wants to open a company on renewable energy installation, in that case, the state only requires having a master electrician to certify the processes. Still, the company can hire anyone with or without any experience or previous knowledge.

EPCC integrated the NABCEP certification to demonstrate the student is qualified to work anywhere in El Paso or outside El Paso.

Officials with NABCEP did not respond to requests for comment about the partnership with the local community college.

"For all the technical programs, it is important to have industrial certifications for them to make a good living… the students can start to make 30,000 or 31,000 a year... In that way, they don't have any problem outside after they graduate," said Dr. Olga Valerio.

Even when the outreach efforts have been affected due to the lack of in-person informational visits to high schools and college fairs to promote the program, Alvarenga reflected on the program's future.

"In the future, everything will be green," and more people will require "a comprehensive approach to renewable energies." As students have several options to work in different fields after earning the associate's, they "can work in construction, where students can work as supervisors, checking the energy efficiency of a building," said Alvarenga.

Dr. Valerio expects enrollment to increase as "everything goes back to normal." She contended that the future falls into technical education and renewable energy as the entering U.S. President Joe Biden pushes for a plan to tackle climate change and create more jobs in the field.

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