Sky’s the limit for West Side training of solar panel technicians

Using space at the former school for St. Agatha Catholic Church, the Sustainability Hub is a venture between a developer and others to address workforce development and economic justice.

SHARE Sky’s the limit for West Side training of solar panel technicians

Rob Wallace, chief executive of Ecademy, instructs Traveli Ratcliff on cutting angles while learning how to install solar panels Monday. A new venture hopes to train 10,000 graduates over the next decade in solar panel installation.

Kevin Tanaka/For The Sun-Times

With the involvement of businesses and organizations, and maybe a boost from providence, a venture to train people in solar panel installation has begun operating on the West Side.

The Sustainability Hub, working in space rented from a Catholic Church, is training a class of 20 and hopes to have 10,000 graduates over the next decade to serve a field that promises steady work, decent wages and the satisfaction of helping the planet.

Real estate developer A.J. Patton, a leader of the project, said it will funnel skilled labor to businesses such as his own that are involved in solar power. The trainees will come from underserved neighborhoods and from a variety of backgrounds.

“We want to create opportunities and affordable housing,” said Patton, who has incorporated solar features into buildings so tenants can pay lower utility bills. “In the end, the people in this program will help improve their own communities.”

Patton late last year got $600,000 to launch the program from Summit Ridge Energy, an investor in commercial solar sites. The 11-week curriculum is from Ecademy, a clean energy career school. The Chicago Jesuit Academy and Black Men United agreed to refer candidates.

A lot of pieces fit together, but Patton had a hard time with the last one — finding space for the class. That’s where providence may have entered the venture.

Inquiries with West Side leaders led him to call the Rev. Larry Dowling of St. Agatha Catholic Church at 3147 W. Douglas Blvd. The church rents space in its former school next door. It turned out a tenant was on the way out.

“We got this space right away, and that never happens in real estate,” Patton said. The hub has made a two-year deal with the church. It eventually hopes to build its own home near Lake Street and Kedzie Avenue.

For St. Agatha, which supports many community programs, the training program “was a natural fit,” Dowling said. “The blessing is that they can immediately place people in jobs. It’s God at work.”

Patton said that even with no marketing, the program has more than 50 people on a waiting list. Information is at

He wants to put graduates to work building solar roofs on four Chicago developments with groundbreakings planned this year. The projects that include Patton’s company, 548 Development, are part of the city’s Invest South/West program. The mixed-use developments include two in Lawndale and one in Humboldt Park and South Chicago.

During class Monday, students worked on basic construction skills and set to work building a wooden frame, learning to appreciate 45-degree angles, the safe use of power tools and the old rule of “measure twice, cut once.”

The program takes students through skills such as soldering and pipe bending. Rob Wallace, chief executive of Ecademy who helped with Monday’s class, said the program includes instruction on financial literacy and conflict resolution.

Graduates will be certified solar and wind technicians. They’re paid during training and afterward will qualify for jobs that can pay more than $40 an hour, Patton said.

Program director Travis Smith said the work “solves two problems, poverty and sustainability.” He said he sees job growth in renewable-energy projects continuing to be robust as nations deal with the climate crisis. “I see this as being my passion,” he said.


Program director Travis Smith, right, instructs Marques Jones on the proper technique using a handsaw Monday during a training class for solar panel installation.

Kevin Tanaka/For The Sun-Times

The Latest
Phil Grenchik landed a big walleye while trolling for steelhead last week.
She was shot in the leg while in a car in the 2500 block of West Divison Street about 11 p.m.
The Bears are rising, but they aren’t the only ones. There are still plenty of hurdles in their path to contending.
Foxx “was forced to step off of the road onto the parkway grass due to her fear of being struck,” according to court documents.
A doe and fawn ambling through the northwest suburbs and signs of a big-coho year on Lake Michigan are among the notes from around Chicago outdoors and beyond.