Energy Efficiency, Solar, Wind Power

Competing Programs Raise Questions About Solar Training

The growth in the solar market is creating a lot of opportunity in the area of credentialing. It’s also creating a lot of confusion for consumers and job-seekers looking for a way into the technical side of the industry.

As the federal government and U.S. states continue to push green-collar job initiatives, the need for a clear path from the classroom to the roof is as important as ever. But with more training and certification programs emerging all the time, that path is getting difficult to navigate.

Certainly competition is a good thing — and the credentialing space is no different. However, if new organizations continue to push different standards and give people mixed messages, up-and-coming renewable energy practitioners may not get the proper experience required to perform reliable, safe installations, says Jane Weissman, executive director of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC).

“It’s a very chaotic and confusing market out there,” says Weissman. “I want to make sure that we have safe competent workers on the roof and that the public isn’t confused about who’s doing what under what kind of competencies.”

Ultimately, the end consumer is who matters most. If the consumer has a bad experience with solar because of poor work done by an under-qualified installer, the whole industry suffers.

Weissman sees a lot of people leaving three-day training programs thinking they are ready to install solar or small wind systems. The reality is that it takes much more time and experience than a short training session.

“We want to make sure someone is not taking a two-day course thinking that they are now qualified,” says Weissman.

So how does one get the experience necessary? And how will the growing number of credentialing options impact the quality of that experience?

In order for consumers and aspiring installers to understand how to value the various programs and standards out there, it’s helpful to first define some terms.

Training:
Training programs usually offer multi-day, intensive hands-on workshops on installing solar PV, solar thermal and small wind. In order to meet the demand for new installers, a number of new training programs have popped up in recent years. Taking a training course is only the first step in becomming qualified to install systems on your own, however. The next step is to get field experience with an established company and then become certified.

Certificate:
A certificate simply shows that the trainee has completed a certain level of coursework. Certificates are usually issued for life; however, certification requires additional training and testing after a certain period of time.

Certification:
Getting certified is a major step up the credentialing ladder. Certification programs, which are formed by a board of highly-experienced industry professionals, create rigorous standards for installers. The best-established certification program for solar is the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, or NABCEP. There are some other programs out there, including the newly-formed UL University program (more on that below), but 16 states now require or highly encourage installers to be NABCEP certified.

Licensing:
After an installer has gotten field experience and gained certification, she can obtain a contractor’s license. Unlike certification, which is recognized nation-wide, the validity of a license varies by state. There are now 14 states that have licenses exclusively for solar. In other states, a license to install solar is simply wrapped up in an electrical, plumbing or general contractor’s license. In states like Massachusetts, laws have been put into place that only allow electrical contractors to pull a permit to install solar, igniting a firestorm within the industry. The licensing space is ever-changing. Renewable energy practitioners need to watch this area closely as licensing requirements continue to evolve.

Accreditation:
The installers aren’t the only ones who need standards — the instructors do as well. The Institute for Sustainable Power Quality (ISPQ) standards are the benchmark in the U.S. for training programs. Established by IREC, the ISPQ standards ensure that renewable energy courses run by universities, technical colleges and independent trainers are consistent and offer a clear path to employment in the industry. In order to evaluate any training program, the ISPQ standards are a great place to start.

Understanding the difference between these various credentials is extremely important for consumers and aspiring installers. If a person can look at a training program, understand its benefits and limitations, and evaluate it through industry-recognized standards, she’ll likely make a good choice.

But what if there’s competition among the people setting the standards?

Last month, Underwriters Laboratory — the global leader in product safety standards — announced that it was starting a new PV installer certification program later this summer, one that would compete directly with NABCEP. Naturally, the folks at NABCEP weren’t very happy that UL University will use different standards.

“We think it’s counter-productive to bring new certification standards into a nascent industry. It would be sort of like having multiple inverter safety standards,” says NABCEP Executive Director Ezra Auerbach. “I think it brings confusion to the marketplace.”

Auerbach says he is holding out the invitation for UL to use the NABCEP standards.

But Brad Smock, general manager of UL University, says that the new competition is a good thing. In recent years, UL has faced competition from other labs doing equipment safety testing. Now, rather than create more confusion, the competition has forced the safety-testing industry to move toward harmonized standards. Smock sees the same thing happening in the PV-installer certification space.

“We hope to get to a point where there is more clarity in the market,” says Smock.

The company is looking to refine the standards, not create an entirely different set, he says. The UL program will focus exclusively on electricians, setting it apart from NABCEP.

Recognizing the importance of NABCEP in the North American market, UL will pursue its certification program more fervently in India and China. (Although the first training sessions will take place in the U.S. at UL’s North Carolina headquarters).

“Our goal is not to position NABCEP any other way than it already is today,” says Smock. “Everyone in this business is after the same goal — to put a safe product out there for the consumer.”

NABCEP’s Auerbach doesn’t see their goals being totally similar.  He criticizes the fact that the UL program will bundle both training programs and certification together. Traditionally, the two have been kept separately to avoid conflicts of interest. But ultimately, Auerbach’s frustration comes down to having two sets of certification standards in the market.

“We don’t need a profusion of standards,” he says. “Why not use an existing certification program to train to?”

Responding to the increasing fragmentation, some industry professionals have called for national credentialing standards for renewable energy installers. But that effort doesn’t appear to have much political traction for now. In the meantime, as more money flows into this area, the growth in such programs will continue, making education about the myriad choices increasingly important for the industry.

To listen to a discussion between Ezra Auerbach, Brad Smock and Jane Weissman, listen to the podcast linked above. Or, to see a video of the roundtable, see the player below.