Inside the training necessary for electrical contractors to become solar integrators
As the solar industry in Massachusetts prepares for an estimated 30% annual growth, triggered by a recent Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) solar requirement and the second phase of the Commonwealth Solar Rebate program, solar integrators in the state are contesting a ruling passed last year by the Board of State Examiners of Electricians that requires all aspects of solar electric installations to be performed by a state-licensed electrician. Opponents of the ruling, who estimate that wiring represents only a fraction — about 10% to 20% — of work on a solar installation, are encouraging state lawmakers to pass House Bill (HB) No. 4180, which would establish a separate license for photovoltaic (PV) installers.
Under HB 4180, construction supervisor licensees, licensed electricians, and any other licensed professional that satisfies the experience and training required by the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) would be eligible to apply for a PV license. In addition, in regulating the PV license, the BBRS would take into account the experience and knowledge of the applicant in installing PV systems and provide appropriate credit for such experience and expertise. However, licensed electricians would still be responsible for overseeing the wiring of the direct current or alternating current sides of the inverter.
Currently, only 10 states — excluding Massachusetts — have established a separate solar PV contracting license, according to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE), an ongoing project of the North Carolina Solar Center, Raleigh, N.C., and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), Latham, N.Y. (See License for Renewable Energy Installation on the EC&M Web site at http://ecmweb.com/construction/renewable-energy-license-requirements-20090801/index.html).
For example, Florida solar contractors have the authority to install, maintain, and repair PV systems in residential, commercial, and industrial facilities and can perform minor electrical, mechanical, plumbing, or roofing work that is covered by the solar contractor license — and that pertains to the installation of the solar energy system for residential systems. To qualify for a solar license, installers must have four years of experience, which may include both installation and education, and must be in a supervisory role for at least one year. An individual also must pass an examination to become certified as a solar contractor. The licensing exam consists of two parts, testing general solar knowledge as well as business and financial management acumen.
However, in that same state, if the scope of work for a solar installation is covered under the scope of work for another contractor license, such as electrical, then the contractor does not need the solar specialty license to perform that work. In fact, in 23 states, solar PV installation falls — in varying degrees — under state electrical licensing rules (click here to see Map).
Peas and carrots
Solar and electrical is a natural pairing, according to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which asserts that skilled electricians who have completed a recognized union apprenticeship program already have many of the skills needed to perform solar PV work professionally and safely. “You don't need to train a separate workforce when you already have a highly trained pool of electricians who need minimal training to become qualified solar installers,” says Kim Craft, assistant business manager for IBEW's Local 11-Los Angeles chapter.
All the same, the IBEW emphasizes solar training for its members. The National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) has developed a core curriculum on solar PV systems for its electrical apprenticeship program, and around 70 training centers across the country offer PV training. In addition, solar training is provided to every apprentice enrolled in an inside or residential apprenticeship program. In March, the first 14 “green technicians” graduated from the Electrical Training Institute's electrical apprenticeship program in Indianapolis. The institute is a joint partnership between IBEW Local 481 and the National Electrical Contractors Association of central Indiana.
Additionally, as part of the green jobs training program of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Austin Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (AEJATC), Austin, Texas, recently received $4.8 million, along with ImagineSolar, Austin, Texas, and the Austin Workforce Investment Board, to provide training to meet immediate needs at solar power plants in Austin and San Antonio — and to support capacity-building in Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico. The grant allows ImagineSolar to offer its alumni field experience in the installation of code-compliant, permitted, and inspected PV systems. Furthermore, the National Photovoltaic Construction Partnership (NPCP), Scarsdale, N.Y., which builds alliances between union installers and solar customers, recently began a residential program for IBEW electricians. Under this program, NPCP provides electricians with a solar kit in order to provide on-site, hands-on training in solar. (Union electricians interested in the program can visit the NPCP Web site at http://www.npcpsolar.com/IBEW/IBEW-residential-solar-program.html.)
Carrots and sticks
Despite the advancement of these programs, electrical contractors and electricians may have more to learn about running a solar installation business above and beyond these hands-on skills. “The calculations and design are the same as a standard electrical contractor project, but the solar industry has this extra layer,” says Phil Undercuffler, a former journeyman electrician and electrical contractor located in Santa Fe, N.M., who is now the director of battery-based and off-grid projects for Denver-based Conergy, which offers varying levels of solar training and business development through its Solar Success! program, colocated with the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) National Solar Conference.
This extra information includes technical topics, such as DC voltages and grounding and bonding requirements. Many of these requirements will be covered by Art. 690 and Art. 705 of the National Electrical Code (NEC), which are in line to be included in the 2011 NEC. “They could make expensive mistakes and add more of a challenge for their business than they need,” says Undercuffler, who has seen businesses new to the industry run through an entire design, get a system installed, and then realize their array field has inverters that will always be shutting down, or that the installers have performed all their calculations but forgotten to adjust for temperature. “We really try to help people shorten the learning curve.”
Additionally, electrical contractors branching out to the solar PV market must become familiar with the market drivers and business models for a solar business, meaning state RPS mandates, interconnection policies, rebates, and incentives. “These things drive the market and make it pencil out better or make it more challenging,” Undercuffler says. “If you happen to be in an area where you've got either a state that does not provide good incentives or an electric utility that puts roadblocks in the way, it's going to be very challenging to make everything pencil out. There are a lot of ways contractors can chase the wrong projects and spin their wheels.”
Currently, the federal government offers a 30% tax credit for solar PV installation. On top of that, some state governments offer credit and also encourage electric utilities to offer incentives, which, when combined with the federal policy, cover 60% to 80% of the cost of installing a solar power system, according to The Green Light Distrikt, a Boston-based online solar community of young professionals working in the clean technology industry. Therefore, states with more incentives have a higher rate of system installations, thereby offering more opportunities for electrical contractors to expand their business into the solar industry.
For example, New Jersey ranks second in amount of grid-tied solar capacity because of the state's aggressive incentives, which include property and sales tax incentives, solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs), a state rebate, and state grant and loan programs. (For a map of states ranked by their amount of grid-tied solar capacity, according to 2008 figures provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, visit Sunpluggers.com at http://sunpluggers.com/2009-12/state-by-state-grid-tied-solar-capacity-000008.php. The DSIRE Web site also outlines solar incentives available state-by-state at http://www.dsireusa.org/solar.)
The state incentives prompted Galloway, N.J.-based electrical contractor Sherwood Electric Co. to begin offering solar PV services about six years ago, and now the company is able to make up for a lack of electrical work with added solar installations. “We put all our efforts into solar, and now it's taking over 65% to 75% of our business,” says Gerard Reilly, senior projects director for Sherwood Solar Co., which installs systems in the commercial and residential markets as well as offers power purchase agreements.
The biggest challenge for the electrical/solar contractor in a state with numerous programs, according to Reilly, is staying on top of the incentives. “Here, you have to stay well-informed with the Board of Public Utilities and New Jersey's Clean Energy Program, especially since these companies are regulating and giving incentives to make solar affordable for your customers,” he explains.
Where the sun don't shine
In fact, state incentives are a bigger driver of solar capacity than sun hours. “The least important thing is if they actually have sun,” says Undercuffler. “In terms of energy produced, it's not that big of a driver.”
Wisconsin, in Zone 5, receives about 4.2 sun hr a day versus Utah in Zone 2 and 3 with between 5 and 5.5 hr a day. Yet, Wisconsin ranks 16th, whereas Utah ranks 31st. This is due in large part to the programs promoting renewable energy in Wisconsin, such as buy-back programs, property and sales tax incentives, and a state rebate program. “Wisconsin is very friendly toward solar and very receptive,” says Neil Matthes, owner and master electrician, Duck Creek Engineering, Inc., Helenville, Wis., and certified solar site assessor for Custer, Wis.-based Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), a non-profit organization that promotes renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable living through education and demonstration to provide solar energy training and resources to technical and community college instructors across the Midwest. Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected MREA to receive a funding initiative. With $3.3 million in funding over five years, the MREA will work with training partners in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota to offer instructor training institutes, provide instructional resources, and organize a network of Midwest solar training programs. In addition, Wisconsin electric utilities offer grant, loan, and rebate programs for solar energy.
Despite the active encouragement of solar by the state, there are no statewide rules or regulations governing licensure of solar installers in Wisconsin. However, in order to qualify for the state's Focus on Energy program, which offers cash-back rewards for installing or expanding renewable-energy systems, including PV, in residential and non-residential buildings to displace natural gas or electricity, installers of the systems must hold a voluntary PV certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, Clifton Park, N.Y. “The MREA training leads up to the NABCEP certification,” says Matthes, who holds a NABCEP entry-level certificate and is working toward its PV certification status. “The MREA recommends that installers have a NABCEP certification.”
De facto standard
Despite the lack of federal rules or regulations governing solar PV installations, voluntary PV certification from NABCEP has become the de facto national standard. NABCEP offers two programs. The entry-level program, meant to prove a basic understanding of solar PV for those just entering the industry, can be achieved through an exam that is administered by institutions around the country, including electrical JATCs. More than 3,000 individuals have passed the NABCEP entry-level photovoltaic exam. The PV certification program, the organization's bread and butter, is accredited to International Standards for Personnel Certification.
To qualify for the PV certification, an individual needs to show 40 hr of advanced PV training and two installations — one needs to have an inverter, and one needs to be inspected and permanent — of solar PV that total at least 1kW in the last two years. For purposes of this process, experience installing PV systems requires being in a responsible role in decision-making on the job. This includes the foreman, supervisor, site manager responsible for the quality of the installation, or experienced person performing the trade without supervision. In addition, the individual must pass the PV certification exam, which is administered twice a year. (The next exam is scheduled for September 11.)
NABCEP PV certification is becoming a requirement in specifications documents and employment applications of privately owned solar companies, as well as some local governments. Utah is the only state that requires NABCEP certification, in addition to other requirements, to qualify for a solar contractor license. “We're pleased that NABCEP is becoming the de facto national standard, without it becoming mandatory,” says Ezra Auerbach, executive director, NABCEP.
In fact, despite increasing adoption of its certification, NABCEP remains staunch in its status as a voluntary certification. “We particularly work hard with program planners in emerging markets where there's little availability of NABCEP to not do that,” says Auerbach, who cites market growth as the main impetus. “Our argument is based on not constraining market growth,” he explains. “If they're not constraining market growth, then how people choose to protect their rate payers' funds is up to them.”
As a result of the September 2009 exam, which experienced a 26% increase in candidates over the previous test administration, 216 new NABCEP-certified installer designations were awarded. The number of certified solar installers has risen by 38% in the last year. Since 2003, when NABCEP began offering the certifying exam, a total of 1,048 individuals have been awarded the NABCEP installer certification. “The certification is for a variety of individuals, including electrical contractors, who want to demonstrate their specific and unique knowledge about the solar electric field,” says Auerbach, who asserts that the certification is based on the full range of knowledge unique to solar specialty work. This knowledge encompasses the skills of electricians, as well as carpentry, roofers, and what Auerbach refers to as “smarty-pants college kid work,” which includes trigonometry and calculus. “There is a variety of things you need to know and do, and our certification recognizes that variety and tests the solar-specific stuff.”
Therefore, many professions, not just electrical contractors, qualify to take the exam. “The common thread is the experience and that they can demonstrate their knowledge of the solar specialty for testing,” says Auerbach.
However, NABCEP certification is not a professional license issued by a government agency, and does not authorize a certificant to practice. NABCEP certificants must comply with all legal requirements related to practice, including licensing laws. “The NABCEP code of ethics recognizes that, in many jurisdictions, there are additional qualifications required to do electrical or plumbing work, and it requires that its certificants agree to adhere to all codes and standards, licensure, and trade qualification requirements in the area in which they practice,” Auerbach says. “We state really clearly that we don't view NABCEP as a license to practice.”