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Climate and Environment

A Free Fellowship Provides Training For Workers Of A Greener Future

Workers at San Jacinto High School in Riverside County install circuits to control a solar and battery microgrid to power the school's gym during outages. (Sharon McNary/LAist)
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In the not-so-distant future, California will be powered primarily by renewable energy, such as wind and solar. That transition will also require a well-trained workforce—and you could be part of it.

I spoke with two people who recently completed a training fellowship at the L.A. Cleantech Incubator, or LACI, a non-profit that funds clean technology initiatives. The program is eight weeks, part-time and…drum roll…it doesn’t cost a dime. In fact, fellows receive a $1500 stipend once they complete the program, and an additional $1200 per month if they are accepted for an internship at LACI.

The current fellowship provides training on how to design and maintain microgrids, which are seen as a necessary tool in a climate-changed future. A microgrid is a self-sufficient, miniature power grid. They’re not a new idea—they've been used around the world to provide electricity in communities that don't have reliable power. Historically, microgrids have primarily used fossil fuels like diesel.

But now, they’re more likely to be made up of solar panels and battery storage. Microgrids can help communities be more resilient amid the climate crisis: they can power a building, or even a neighborhood, when the massive power grid most of us rely on goes down, which is becoming more common as weather and wildfires become increasingly extreme (remember those rolling blackouts of 2020?).

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And, because they pair so well with cleaner energy, they can help spur the transition away from our traditional, planet-heating energy sources of coal, oil and natural gas.

“We're seeing a transition from environmental solutions being niche to being mainstream,” said Matt Petersen, L.A.’s former Chief Sustainability Officer and now CEO of LACI. “This is all leading to the transition and transformation that we've known for a long time can happen—that we can grow the economy while reducing emissions.”

When it comes to solutions to the climate crisis, we hear a lot about changing systems, so it can be easy to forget that actual humans are essential to building and keeping these systems reliable. And the “green economy” will need a lot of humans with a wide variety of technical and design skills.

“This is an industry that's going to boom, that's growing already and we just need more people trained to to service that,” Ted Bardacke said of microgrids. He’s the CEO of the Clean Power Alliance, or CPA, an electricity provider that supplies mostly renewable energy to more than three million residents and businesses in L.A. and Ventura counties. Bardacke said he sees microgrids as a key piece of CPA’s energy strategy into the future. They, along with the state, helped fund the fellowship.

Applications for the next round of microgrid fellows are open until July 27. You can learn more on this and other upcoming fellowships here and apply here. Meanwhile, here’s some insight from two recent graduates.

Brenda Medina-Maldonado, 30

Brenda Medina-Maldonado grew up in the Central Valley, went to college in Santa Barbara, then came to L.A. to get a taste of big city life. She worked at an insurance agency and as an accountant to support herself.

But about five years ago, she became really concerned about the climate crisis—and wanted to do something about it.

“I just decided it was something I couldn't ignore because it sounded too big,” she said.

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She started volunteering with a sustainability non-profit and taking environmental classes at Santa Monica College. But she wasn’t sure how to get the work she wanted without getting a Master’s degree, which was too expensive.

An image of a woman's face. She wears red-rimmed glasses, a striped black-and-white sleeveless shirt, and has dark hair.
Brenda Medina-Maldonado is a recent graduate of LACI's free microgrid fellowship training program.
(Brenda Medina-Maldonado

She came across LACI’s microgrid fellowship on LinkedIn. The program was part-time, so she could continue to work and take classes. She did the short application—and got accepted.

The fellowship gave her hands-on training in designing and maintaining microgrids, something she sees as a way to democratize energy access.

“It's a bridge for communities to have local energy themselves and not be reliant on this really big electrical grid that may or may not be as stable as climate change changes things,” she said.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants who, despite the work hours and challenges, made equal time for their three kids, Medina-Maldonado sees her new career path as a way to honor her parents.

“It was always an overarching thing, like, we want to make sure that this family is very fair in all the practices that we have,” she said. “Then how can you extend that to communities and the larger world outside of yourself?”

The fellowship helped her get a job with a non-profit that helps people with low incomes and people of color get good jobs in the clean economy.

“Climate change is the biggest issue the human race is going to be facing,” she said. “Oftentimes we'll just see the hopelessness in it, but there are a lot of solutions as well, especially within the job sector.”

Veronica Bruny, 49

Veronica Bruny used to work in design and sound and video production. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she found herself out of a job.

An image of a woman's face. She has short hair and wears a floral shirt.
Veronica Bruny, who recently graduated from a free fellowship at L.A. Cleantech Incubator.
(Veronica Bruny

With a pandemic-changed world—and two teenagers—she was concerned about the security of her previous line of work. She also realized she needed a change.

“What I was looking for was an opportunity to have a great impact and to do something that was pretty organic to who I was,” she said. “The challenge was to take what I've learned and say, well…do I want to challenge myself to try something new?”

She heard about the microgrid fellowship on a news report and thought, ‘hey, I could do that.’ The concept of microgrids bridged her environmentally-conscious attitude and her passion for social justice.

She mostly grew up in La Puente, but spent two years on her family’s farm in rural Colorado when she was 8. There, she drank clean water from springs and played in the corn fields and mud. The experience left her with a deep understanding of the importance of self-sufficiency, and helped shape her understanding of who gets access to resources like clean water and renewable energy—and who doesn't.

“I feel like inner city, lower income communities should be able to just wake up one day and be like, ‘You know what? We're going to build our own microgrid and we're going to power our own selves and make life happen,” she said.

Now she has a paid internship with LACI’s Advanced Prototyping Center, where she’ll develop program management skills. She said the workforce development piece of the program, which provides guidance on resumes and interviewing, was particularly helpful for her.

“You get help on trying to understand what direction you want to go in and what kind of jobs you want to look into and apply for,” she said. “And they fully support a transition, in my case, from one career to another.”

She said she looks forward to permanent employment in the field, but the experience has already had a lasting effect.

“My kids got to come here and watch me graduate,” she said. “I think it inspired them to want to go out and achieve the goals that they have, that they can set their mind to it and also have an impact on their environment.”

Upcoming Opportunities At LACI
  • Microgrid Fellowship Program

    The free program teaches the skills needed to operate, monitor and maintain microgrid systems through hands-on training by industry experts and career coaching. Certifications in NFPA 70-E and OSHA Lockout, Tagout (LOTO) are also available. Applications are open until July 27: Fellows receive a $1500 stipend for completing the program, and $1200 per month if accepted for an internship. The next training program will focus on maintaining electric vehicle equipment.

  • All-Women Electric Vehicle Network Technician Training Course

    LACI is partnering with L.A.-based company ChargerHelp! to host an all-women training course in September on the maintenance of electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) such as chargers. Applications open in August and you can email to learn more. 

Climate Emergency Questions
Fires. Mudslides. Heat waves. What questions do you need answered as you prepare for the effects of the climate emergency?

Corrected August 3, 2022 at 11:14 AM PDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of L.A.’s former Chief Sustainability Officer, Matt Petersen. LAist regrets the error.