Monterey County Weekly
May 28, 2015
Michael Castaner says he knew in his gut it was a bad idea, but with a pair of bolt-cutters, he and a friend broke into a house and stole a 9-millimeter handgun and a couple of dirt bikes. Castaner, then just 14, was charged with burglary and ordered to do three years of probation. He was selling drugs for money to support his three siblings in Spokane, Washington.
Two years later, he left home, moved in with his grandmother in East Salinas and enrolled in high school at Rancho Cielo, a nonprofit alternative education campus that serves non-traditional students, including probationers.
Castaner is enrolled in the construction academy here, mixing hands-on building work into his academic coursework. He’s just started as a student in the second of eight solar-installation classes, meeting for half-days on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for 10 weeks. He’ll earn a certification after learning how to design, permit and build a 10-kilowatt system on the rooftops of classrooms.
“I always thought clean energy was better,” Castaner says. “It’s more consistent with our technology these days.”
He joined eight graduates of the first-ever solar installation class for a ceremony May 26, celebrating the first of eight 10-kilowatt systems successfully installed on the roof of the woodshop.
Once complete, the 80-kilowatt system is expected to fully power the Rancho Cielo campus, saving about $20,000 a year in electric bills. A collection of nonprofits, business and investors paid for the curriculum and installation costs, about $230,000; Rancho Cielo will eventually buy the system.
“It’s much smaller than a typical investor-owned solar project,” says class instructor Tony Tersol, co-owner of Pacific Grove-based installer Applied Solar Energy. “A student-built project would make most investors balk.”
The funding came together under the leadership of Monterey nonprofit The Offset Project, which kicked in $7,000, and brought on Capitola-based RC Cubed, an energy financing company. First Solar, an Arizona-based solar company that’s preparing to break ground on a 280-megawatt project near Parkfield in South County this fall, paid for curriculum development and donated a solar panel training system. They’re expecting to hire some 500 workers – hopefully including some Rancho Cielo graduates – to build California Flats.
Castaner is on track to graduate in January, just weeks before he turns 18 and starts looking for work.
He says it won’t be easy to earn what he could selling drugs, but he’ll be looking for a legit job. Solar installation might come down the road, but for now, ironically enough, he’s planning to move to North Dakota and look for an oil-rig job.
To Tersol, getting students like Castaner on track to be employable is still a clear success.
“What we’ve done is taught them an attitude,” he says. “My vision is that some of these students start their own businesses.”
That shift is exactly the empowerment Rancho Cielo has long offered. As energy markets emerge, Rancho Cielo is evolving along with its students.