Green Comes to Northwest Indiana’s Rust Belt | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Green Comes to Northwest Indiana's Rust Belt

Millions of dollars in federal stimulus money is heading Indiana's way to boost technologies promoting cleaner, greener energy. Solar and wind power are just two green technologies that could gain a firmer foothold in Northwest Indiana. But before these technologies can be more widely put to use, those in the business of working with the contraptions need to learn how to do it.

This is the sound of a newer kind of industry taking shape. Sure, the region's steel mills are still rolling out product although much less now because of the poor economy. But here, workers are bolting, screwing and hammering a metal frame. The frame is for 30 state-of-the-art solar panels being affixed to the roof of the Town Hall in Merrillville, Indiana.

In the long term, the panels are expected to save the town on energy costs. For the short term, this roof is a sort of classroom where traditional tradesmen are learning to apply their crafts to some different types of devices.

MATTULL: This is the first I've ever seen or been on. So, it's pretty cool to be in on the first one.

Al Mattull of Lake Village, Indiana joined about 50 other workers, or in this case students, in installing the panels and learning the process along the way.

A $23,000 grant through the Indiana Department of Energy paid for the materials.

Local roofers, sheet metal and electrical union members worked for free in exchange for the training.

The idea is to have local trades people ready for work that civic and union leaders say will be coming on strong.

Nationally, President Obama's administration hopes to create nearly a half-million jobs through a $6-billion investment in weatherization assistance.

Indiana, meanwhile, stands to receive some $163 million to make federally owned buildings more energy efficient.

FINK: We really see this as a pilot project to really promote renewable energy throughout the region and really is an education opportunity to help educate the region on the benefits of solar electricity and renewable energy. That's really where we need to go in this country.

That's Howard Fink, administrator for the town of Merrillville, one of the first communities in Northwest Indiana to commit to renewable energy.

And though Northwest Indiana isn't known for industries that are easy on the environment, Fink says the region and its workforce are adaptable.

FINK: We really want to put Northwest Indiana on the map for renewable energy. Not only to install these systems, but manufactures to locate in Northwest Indiana. A whole new economic engine for our region around renewable energy.

Seem far fetched?

Well, Fink's vision is already happening locally. Take SunRise Solar for example.

KEITH: It's just a little glimpse where we're going. It's a first toward something that's going to be a lot bigger.

Owner Bill Keith of St. John, Indiana employs about 23 people. His company manufactures solar-powered fans and his customers are worldwide.

The green retraining he's watching in Merrillville is just what Keith wants to see more of.

KEITH: Let's create a whole new generation of electrical workers, electricians, roofers, sheet metal people who are going to be able to maintain renewable energy systems, solar, wind, hydro. That's where the green jobs are going to be created.

With a little cold drizzle falling, workers connect a series of wires from the dark, shinny gray panels to the building's power supply. They work a brisk pace as the sun begins to set on the flat roof. I'm careful not to fall off the roof. It's about 25 feet down.

Tracey Hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 697 organized the solar panel installation. Hall says people wanting training in new technologies can read from a book or take online classes

HALL: But actually coming out here and touching this stuff and doing it, the experienced involved, you can't beat that.

This week planners announced a new housing development for Burns Harbor, Indiana, off the southern shore of Lake Michigan. There, they say they'll be primary using green technology, materials and design concepts.

Music Button: Bajofondo, "Tuve Sol", from the CD Mar Dulce (Decca records) after green jobs

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