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Austin, Texas, is always looking for new ways to ‘hook ’em by the horns’ and keep up the city’s trademark quote of ‘weirdness.’ Austinites aren’t necessarily strange people, but the folks there like preserving their local flair and forward-thinking ideas. One new way of being unique and working for a brighter future is coming straight from the sun.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar America Cities program partnered with Austin Community College and Austin Energy to develop a renewable energy curriculum at the school. The new program, in which more than 400 students have enrolled, will develop the next generation of skilled workers in the area, while helping Austin attain its solar goals.

Shayna Lee started in the college’s program in 2008. A mother of four children, Shayna’s only income then was from waiting tables at a local restaurant. After learning more about solar energy in the program, Austin Energy selected her as an intern in January 2009, and she’s now a temporary employee working toward a permanent position.

“My goal is to understand the best practices and available technologies for optimizing energy efficiency and sustainability and to use that understanding to assist in the implementation process,” Shayna says. “Years ago, when I first decided this was something I wanted to do — long before I learned of the program at [the college] —I hadn’t imagined it would be on a large utility scale!”

Austin has established one of the country’s most-ambitious solar goals —to produce 100 MW of solar energy by 2020. This could power about 17,000 homes in Austin by that year. The city also established incentives in the form of rebates to help achieve those goals. In March 2009, city council approved what will be one of the country’s largest solar energy projects — a 30 MW solar plant.

The daily growth of the American renewable energy sector excites workers like Shayna.

“After working here, where this is already happening — and there is so much more planned for the future — I would not want to be anywhere else,” she says.

Of the 25 cities designated by DOE as a SAC, three are in Texas. DOE named Austin an award recipient in 2007, and Houston and San Antonio followed in 2008.