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Who Holds the Power?

Last year a new ruling came down from the State Board of Electrical Examiners that stated only Massachusetts licensed electricians and registered apprentices can perform any and all aspects of installing solar energy. Seasoned solar installation veterans, some of whom had been putting solar energy on homes and businesses for more than 20 years, were literally forced off the roof as a result of the ruling. Now, one year later, a battle is brewing in Boston over who should be allowed to perform solar installations in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In the past solar integrators and electricians shared installation jobs, with electricians pulling the wire permits and completing all of the hard wiring on solar jobs. Wiring represents about 10-20% of a solar installation, according to estimates.

Under the new ruling, electricians must be on the job from start to finish and must perform (or help to perform) all aspects of the install, including pouring concrete for ground-mounted systems or putting up racking on the roof.

It’s an important issue in Massachusetts because of Governor Patrick’s interest in aggressively expanding solar energy in the state. His Commonwealth Solar Program has attracted numerous solar energy companies to set up shop in Massachusetts and analysts are predicting that with the state’s newly created SREC market, it will start to rival New Jersey, the second largest solar market in the U.S.

Companies like Borrego Solar, Alteris Renewables and Nexamp have seen solar sales increasing in the state, and electricians see the burgeoning solar industry as an opportunity to create new work.

With so many Americans unemployed right now, and the Massachusetts construction industry experiencing up to 25% unemployment since the recession started in 2008, it’s not surprising that Massachusetts’s electricians are looking to the solar industry.

“We’ve lost jobs just like all the other trades,” said Martin Aikens, a Business Agent of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 103, in a conference session during the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s (NESEA) Building Energy 10 conference in Boston. The conference session was entitled, “The Great Solar Certification Divide,” and included a panel of solar integrators and electricians. 

In the conference session, Aikens explained that the issue is safety. He said that electricians go to school for four years and put in 8,000 hours of training before becoming licensed. “If you’re not qualified to install then you’re going to die. This is what it's all about — licenses,” he said.

Chris Kilfoyle of Berkshire Photovoltaic Services (BPVS), a solar firm based in Adams, Massachusetts, doesn’t think it’s that cut and dry. He said that more than 11 MW of PV have been installed safely and properly under the Commonwealth Solar Program, which requires inspection and proper licensure in order for rebates to be doled out. Kilfoyle is not aware of any safety issues having occurred in the past.

"Certainly nothing that was brought to the attention of the state board of electrical examiners or to the Commonwealth Solar Program,” he said.

Before the new ruling, said Kilfoyle, safety was maintained by all the various trades involved in solar installations. “So, if you’re a general contractor, your workers will have been OSHEA certified, they are wearing proper safety gear when they are working on a roof.”

Building contractors — who are responsible for pulling building permits — would ensure that panels were mounted correctly and look at issues such as properly attached mounts, using the right screws and sealing them properly.

"Those all come under the purview of the building code,” he said.

Integrators like Kilfoyle and John Abrams, President and CEO of South Mountain Company, maintain that the new ruling now requires electricians to do some of the tasks that they are not trained to do. “They can’t stand going up on the roof,” said Abrams, who’s design/build firm is located on Martha’s Vineyard. But now electricians are helping with those tasks because that’s what the ruling dictates.

In addition, Kilfoyle pointed out that NABCEP certification, the industry standard for solar installers, is voluntary in Massachusetts. “But if you examine who the 30 NABCEP-certified installers are, they are not electricians,” he said. “NABCEP is the only course of study and the only credential that really covers both the mechanical/structural work involved in PV systems as well as the nuances of electrical work,” he said.

But if electricians haven’t been pulled onto job sites to make them safer, then what is the rationale behind the ruling? Neither the State Board of Electrical Examiners nor the IBEW was available for comment, but Kilfoyle believes the issue comes down to the economy. “It’s really an issue of a downturn in construction jobs and this particular electrical union saying ‘gosh, look at all this money coming into the state for renewable energy, we want it all,’” he said.

Enter HR4180

New legislation has been introduced in Massachusetts that solar integrators hope will resolve the problem.  HR4180 asks the state to create a new solar license classification that falls under a specialty construction supervisor license.

Under HR4180, solar licensees would have NABCEP expertise “for roof loading, snow loading, wind loading particular to Massachusetts, structural attachment and waterproofing,” said Kilfoyle. Job site organization, safety matters and issues related to system design, orientation, shading and production would also be required knowledge.

Supporters believe that HR4180 would send a clear signal to the organizers of green workforce training efforts underway at Massachusetts’s community colleges and technical schools, providing trainees with a career path they could pursue. While it might take someone 8,000 hours to become an electrician, pursuing a Solar PV license would be much faster, according to Kilfoyle.

If the legislation passes, Kilfoyle hopes the status quo in Massachusetts will be restored, with electricians pulling the wire permits and doing the hard wiring and solar integrators performing the remainder of the tasks.  He said that integrators are prepared to keep focused on the issue should the bill fail.

In the meantime, some solar companies are becoming electrical contracting companies in order to comply with the ruling. Others are fighting it on a case-by-case basis.

Kilfoyle encourages solar companies in other states to stay on top of their local electrician boards and urges them to work toward PV licensure. Installing PV “is a specialty technical skill,” and requiring a solar license is in everyone’s best interest in order to ensure it's done correctly, he said.

“We want to make sure that the consumer has full trust in what we are doing,” he said.

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Jennifer Runyon is chief editor of RenewableEnergyWorld.com and Renewable Energy World magazine, coordinating, writing and/or editing columns, features, news stories and blogs for the publications. She also serves as conference chair of Renewable ...

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