White Bear Lake

Century College prepares students for bright futures in solar energy

Interview with alumni Kristina Foley and Sergio Navas

From training to careers
in clean energy

 

Offering both degree and certificate options, a unique Solar and Renewable Energy program at Century College in White Bear Lake provides students with knowledge and skills to make an impact in the clean energy industries in Minnesota and beyond.

We spoke with faculty lead Scott Randall to learn more about the program and interviewed alumni Kristina Foley and Sergio Navas, who shared what drew them to Century College and how they are using what they learned to advance their careers in clean energy.

 

The clean energy industry needs electricians, solar installers, social media and marketing people, folks who can run logistics, work in warehouses, and more. Everyone has skills that contribute to the overall cause. You don't have to be the person lugging a solar panel up on the roof to be a part of a renewable energy company.

Scott Randall, Faculty lead, Century College Solar and Renewable Energy Program
 

As the number and type of jobs in clean energy grow, Century College’s Solar and Renewable Energy program is helping prepare students to find and navigate careers in the industry.

Faculty lead Scott Randall noted how the program offers flexibility through both degree and certificate options and a curriculum that includes hands-on training, as well as in-person and online instruction that cover a range of renewable energy topics. It attracts students with diverse backgrounds and prepares them with knowledge and skills that are in high demand within the industry.

"The clean energy industry needs electricians, solar installers, social media and marketing people, folks who can run logistics, work in warehouses, and more. Everyone has skills that contribute to the overall cause. You don't have to be the person lugging a solar panel up on the roof to be a part of a renewable energy company," Randall said.

“Some of the biggest challenges we’ll face as a society in the next hundred years are related to energy and utilities. We need to ensure a sustainable and reliable supply of energy. Those with skills that can serve the energy industry will be in high demand for decades,” Randall said.

Watch video about the program

We spoke with two Century College alumni—Kristina Foley and Sergio Navas—to learn about their experience and how they are applying what they learned to their careers in clean energy.

Foley now works as the Service Manager at Saint Paul-based All Energy Solar, managing a team of technicians and helping customers with their solar equipment. Navas owns his own company Simply Drones, where he works to advance applications of drone technology in the solar industry.

What motivated you to enroll in Century College and pursue a career in clean energy?

 

Kristina Foley: Earlier in my career, I worked in the financial and real estate worlds and then became a mom. As my kid grew, I knew I wanted to go back to work and do something different. I saw a poster about solar, and, even though I had no background in construction, electrical work, tools, or anything, I said, “I can do that.” I've been a forever environmentalist, and I wanted to make the world a better place for my daughter. I found out about Century College’s program and enrolled, pursuing the Advanced Photovoltaic Energy Systems Certificate. In my first class, I was the only woman and one of the oldest people in the room. I didn’t look like the rest of the people in the program. I knew nothing about renewable energy or solar but wanted to learn everything from start to finish.

Century’s program teaches you a lot of basics, in terms of terminology and tools. To a certain extent, solar is a construction and electric trade—from design and wires to roofing materials and building codes. You need to be safe. Electricity is not safe, but if you have the training and skills to work with it safely, it’s a fascinating field. I learned about building and technology, and I was out there on Saturdays building a roof deck with shingles. But I’m just over 5’ tall, and my arms were barely long enough to hold a solar panel.

Being a solar installer or out in the field with a hardhat might not work for me, but I wasn’t deterred. I had soft skills and previous experience in customer service, project management, and office work that I could bring to the table. Going back to school helped prepare me to return to an office environment too. So, what I envisioned for myself and my skills was taking a customer interested in solar from start to finish, from scoping all the way through to project completion.

 

Sergio Navas: A few years ago, I was living in Colombia, in South America, where I had studied and graduated as a petroleum engineer. I wanted to be in the energy industry, which had been clear to me since I started studying these topics a decade ago. We need energy as a society because that’s how we progress. But how do we get that energy and how do we not destroy ourselves at the same time?

I wasn't sure the petroleum engineering field could answer this question. I wasn’t seeing the dots being connected to where the world should and needs to go. Personally, I wanted to be part of an industry that generates energy in a more sustainable way. I knew that solar and wind, even though they still have some challenges, are the way to go. I knew more people needed to learn about renewable energy and solar technology, and that I had more to learn too, so I could move in a different direction and still help our society get energy.

I started looking for programs to design and install photovoltaic systems—not just in a theoretical way, but somewhere to get hands-on experience. That’s what I liked about Century College’s Energy Technical Specialist program. They give you that kind of experience and exposure to the skills and technology that a solar installer would actually need. So, I came to Minnesota and enrolled in the 2-year associate degree program.

Now that you are working in the clean energy industry, what does your day-to-day look like? How did Century College help prepare you for your work and career?

 

Kristina Foley: While I was still in the program, All Energy Solar hired me in an entry-level sales representative position. I talked to prospective customers at the residential level interested in solar on their homes. I knew working with these customers could be a great fit for my background and skills. I had enough flexibility in this role to finish my classes and work at the same time, too.

Eventually, I took on a new position as Service Manager for the company. I went from sales, which is at the beginning step of investing in solar on your home, to the service and warranty end of the process. When I started in this role five years ago, we had two technicians and myself in the service department, and now we have five technicians and another office person. All Energy Solar had 52 full-time employees then and now has more than 130. I’ve seen firsthand how this field and the solar industry are growing and ever changing. You have to continuously learn. I’m always learning, even to this day, since the rules and regulations change and the landscape in this field changes so quickly.

While I was still in the program, All Energy Solar hired me in an entry-level sales representative position... Eventually, I took on a new position as Service Manager for the company.

Kristina Foley, Service Manager at All Energy Solar and Century College alumna

Sergio Navas: When I first got to Century College, Scott Randall had a drone for students to use and experiment with applications in the solar industry. He wanted to start teaching with it, and I was looking for a job to work on part-time while I was going to school. So, Scott had me help him build this into parts of our classes, and ultimately into one course this fall with eight students. I learned how to fly a drone, learned the regulations, and learned about all the possible applications to incorporate drones into coursework and the sector.

There are many industries taking advantage of drone technology, so there is lots of learning we can do from them and then adapt those applications to the solar and renewable energy industries, which can make this work safer, more accurate, faster, and even cheaper. So, I have been stuck on this aspect of the industry ever since.

I got my drone pilot’s license and started my own business as a drone service provider, consulting with solar companies on projects, which is exciting. I offer a few main services. In one case, I can do site assessments by taking high quality pictures of a building where someone might be interested in installing solar. I stitch these pictures together into a model using software to create solar array designs and estimate what the expected energy output throughout the year would be. This process also allows you to do shading analysis in a really accurate way. Everything in the site assessment process becomes more accurate and safer. You don’t have to send a technician to a roof with a tape measure to get the information we can get from using drones.

Using a drone and infrared camera, I can also do on-site inspections. I can assess how or if solar panels across a whole field—so a community solar garden, for example—are working as they are supposed to. If there are issues or parts of the array that aren’t working, the drone and camera I use can get that information more quickly. I am exploring other potential opportunities, too. In the construction and installation of solar arrays, for example, we can consider recording the whole process of construction or even parts of the process to measure progress, evaluate, and adjust, to improve how it might be done again in another project. I hope to find ways to keep assisting with different parts of these projects.

I learned how to fly a drone, learned the regulations, and learned about all the possible applications to incorporate drones into coursework and the sector... I got my drone pilot’s license and started my own business as a drone service provider, consulting with solar companies on projects, which is exciting.

Sergio Navas, Founder of Simply Drones and Century College Alumnus

What have you enjoyed and what have you found challenging about working in clean energy?

 

Kristina Foley: The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a huge curve into everyone’s life, and as a manager, it’s been important for me to keep a cohesive team and keep our technicians safe. Every site where we have solar arrays is different and every problem we face is different. Our team does video calls in the morning and at the end of the day, talking and collectively problem-solving as a group. What materials do we need? How can we use each other as resources? What did we find, what did we fix, and what do we have to go back to do? We’re based in Saint Paul, but the team works in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and beyond. We’ve had to navigate different public health rules, hotspots, and mask requirements throughout our service territory. Some places have been more shut down than others, so that has complicated our work. There are new things to navigate every day.

The rest of my day is working with customers and taking care of internal requests. I’m doing contracts, invoicing, following up on materials with contractors and distributors, getting warranty claims on products, working internally with our operations department, install crews, and project coordinators on service upgrades. These can include a customer wanting to add panels or install an electric vehicle charger or additional items like snow guards to protect their panels, or a new monitoring system. I can help our team with those requests. Working in a service role like this, you need to know a bit of everything and ask lots of questions.

Every customer and every situation is different. It’s not the same thing you’re doing—it’s not the same call after call. I’ve enjoyed being able to resolve problems with customers. They can be really happy and satisfied when they understand more. Solar is not inexpensive, it’s an investment. Even with financing to pay monthly, there is still an additional cost, but for customers to look at their utility statements and to see the impact that solar is having, that’s great.

 

Sergio Navas: Managing all the different tasks that come with running a new business has been really rewarding. I’m working with clients, doing the actual drone piloting work in the field, and then working on marketing and videos of these services for social media, too, including on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.

Since finishing the program, I have been going out and doing the work, a lot of which is showing up and networking. Through the program at Century College and Scott Randall’s network, I have been able to connect with a lot of people in the solar industry, which is great. I get to pitch and share what I’m doing—some in the industry are excited and others have questions. I’m also in a position to pay it forward by helping other Century College students.

Educating those I work with about drone applications in the industry has still been a challenge. Some are skeptical and don’t know how to incorporate drones into their workflow. Introducing a new technology like this can make it difficult, but there are opportunities for us all to learn and adapt. I’m the kind of person who wants everything to happen at once, so I admit that I can sometimes be impatient wanting to see all of this change happen, but I’m seeing progress in my business and in the industry too, which is encouraging.

I would say that anyone interested at all in renewable energy or solar will learn a lot from enrolling in a training program like the one at Century College.

Kristina Foley, Service Manager at All Energy Solar and Century College alumna

What advice would you give to others interested in enrolling in Century College’s program and pursuing a career in clean energy?

 

Kristina Foley: I would say that anyone interested at all in renewable energy or solar will learn a lot from enrolling in a training program like the one at Century College. Through these courses, you can find what topics or jobs are or aren’t a good fit for you personally. You learn the basic skills and knowledge you need to work in the renewable energy field, so you can talk intelligently and understand what your coworkers and customers might be saying. We need people from all different backgrounds to make solar and renewable energy work well. For young people, you can also come into an entry-level position in a warehouse, in sales, or as an installer, and make a decent hourly wage or put in hours toward becoming a journeyman and an electrician. I got out of sales and went to something completely different, so it’s possible to switch gears even within the industry.

I’m passionate about this work. I like all the opportunities this field provides. And All Energy Solar has been a great fit for me. They offer a great product, and they’ve been around for years. I get calls from people who worked with installers who are no longer in business, but it’s great that we have been able to stay in the industry and grow. I like to send people to the All Energy Solar careers page on our website and share this new Solar Jobs e-book resource we created. We’re always looking for talented folks. 

 

Sergio Navas: I like to remind people looking to find a career in this field that we really can help humanity to do better. We can do better than what we have now. If you like energy or engineering, the program at Century College is the way to go. You can find purpose in it. I was drawn to the work and to doing my best. It’s not a job where I wake up sighing and say, “Oh, I have to go to the office and another day of work.” I find a real purpose with it. I wake up saying, “I have the opportunity to change the solar industry and help change the world, too.” There are many ways to change the world, but I see this work in renewable energy as my small part. If people have questions about my work or experience or want to work together, I encourage them to contact me and connect on social media, too.

I like to remind people looking to find a career in this field that we really can help humanity to do better... There are many ways to change the world, but I see this work in renewable energy as my small part.

Sergio Navas, Founder of Simply Drones and Century College Alumnus
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