Contentious Solar Licensing Issues Still at Play in California

California’s solar community is relishing a series of solar energy victories in ’06, including the passage and signing last week of SB1, the Million Solar Roofs bill. But there still remain some unanswered questions, chiefly: what happened to last year’s well-publicized divisions between labor groups and the solar community over licensing? Well, the good news is that licensing didn’t get hijacked in SB1 at the expense of the solar industry as it did last year. The bad news is, it still could.

The solar energy and wider environmental community is both impressed and delighted that SB1 was signed into law. It was a long time coming and it’s unquestionably the largest piece of solar legislation in the entire nation — including any federal incentives. And given the size of California’s market, it bodes well for the rest of the domestic solar industry. The bill, authored by state Sen. Kevin Murray, struck a successful balance between competing factions — a feat not achieved in ’04 and ’05 when similar legislation was brought forward in the state assembly. One reason it succeeded is that the large, $3.2 billion funding component was approved this past January by the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which is arguably more insulated from special interest leverage. But another key reason SB1 survived the legislative gauntlet this year is that licensing requirements saying who can and cannot install solar photovoltaic (PV) projects were left out. The quick, essential background is that most solar installers and project integration companies, roughly 300 in the state, perform their work based on a C-46 license. This started out as a solar thermal water license and has evolved to encompass solar photovoltaic (PV). Last year, when some influential factions of California’s major electrical union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), saw the financial size of the solar pot being debated in the legislature, they wanted a piece of the action. The IBEW went on to insist that all future work related to California’s Million Solar Roofs bill would have to be done with a C-10 license, a license specific to electricians’ work and one that, not coincidentally, most solar installers do not have, and most IBEW members do have. Not surprisingly, the two sides butted heads with animosity and impasse prevailing over negotiation and compromise. With a collapsed consensus, the bill died on the assembly floor by the end of the summer and the legislative session. Fast forward to this summer where, much to everyone’s relief, the same vitriolic topic largely stayed out of the bill — but not entirely. The bottom line is that there are no concrete items in SB1 that change what type of licensing is required for solar work in California, but the bill instructs the state licensing board to revisit the current guidelines and to make any changes they see fit. In other words, licensing issues have not gone away but rather are very much in play. “One thing I think will be very interesting to see played out is this licensing issue. I’m not surprised this was pushed out of the bill,” said Aaron Nitzkin, VP of Solar Operations for Old Country Roofing, who recently joined Old Country Roofing to incorporate solar PV into their roofing business. Nitzkin comes down somewhere on the middle of this debate. He acknowledges it will be a major issue, likely a traumatic one, if there’s a push to require a full electrician’s license (C-10) for all future California solar work. On the other hand, he feels the barriers to entry on the C-46 license are too low. Someone like Chris Anderson, Chief Operations Officer at Borrego Solar, a bay-area solar contractor, thinks they’re just fine. “A lot of solar contractors only have the C-46 and many came from the solar thermal side. But the C-46 exam truly addresses both thermal and PV,” Anderson said. “And the C-10 I took in 2005 had not a single question related to PV.” Anderson has both a C-46 and a C-10 license, which means he could stand to benefit if some change were made to push out C-46 licenses from solar work, but he is strongly against that. He thinks if the state licensing board considers any changes to the requirements for solar work in California, it should be a mild effort to strengthen the PV side of the C-46 test, but not to try and make the C-10 — the electrician’s gold standard — into more of a solar test. Referring to what happened last year, Anderson said, “the labor unions saw the solar industry was about to have lots of dollars pumped into it and they jumped on board. It wasn’t for safety, it was basically a way to hijack the process and protect their own interests. I’m happy to see it didn’t pass even though I have a C-10.” While the Million Solar Roofs bill recently signed by the Governor didn’t include last year’s controversial provision, Les Nelson, Executive Director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association, is still concerned that the state licensing board is required to reevaluate the guidelines. “What SB1 does is revisit the whole thing again as an accommodation to the unions so they can try to see if they can undo the C-46 license again,” Nelson said. “There is no question that there has been an effort to make it so only C-10s can put in PV, those are the electrical contractors.” Nelson said the licensing board considered the issue last year when it ruled that both licenses should qualify, but he’s worried about them being forced to revisit the issue again because “when you put it back on the burner again, who knows what’s going to happen.” With these fears acknowledged, Nelson does take some comfort in the words of Bob Raymer, Technical Director for California’s Building Industry Association (CBIA). In his prominent position, Raymer has a good understanding of different and competing industries all lumped within the building industry. He says the CBIA strongly supported the Million Solar Roofs bill, specifically its latest incarnation this year that lacked some hard-to-swallow components including what he called “severe” contractor restrictions. He said “a host of problems would have arisen” from a provision of requiring only a C-10 license to install solar. “A lot of electricians haven’t been on a roof in years. There was a real health and safety concern. We wanted to make sure that you have knowledgeable people with talent and understanding to do the appropriate work.” With regard to the current SB1 law redirecting the debate to the state licensing board, Raymer does not believe the board would put a severe restriction on who can and cannot do solar work in California. “I don’t think you’ll see anything odd coming out of this,” Raymer said. “You’ll probably have three or four licenses that can take part. You’re not going to see this limited to C-10.” But like most important solar issues in California, licensing might be one to keep an eye on. Publisher’s note: This is the last article written by Jesse Broehl, Editor, for Jesse is moving on to join Windpower Monthly. All of us at wish him the best and much success.
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