How, Why and Where to Get a Solar Education

Whether it’s the rise in environmental consciousness, realization of the impacts of relying on foreign oil, or the changing economy, more people are turning towards the renewable energies of solar, wind and water power. With the increased interest in renewables, comes an increased need for renewable energy education. Fortunately, there are many programs available that provide RE education for all needs from online classes to hands-on workshops to certification and degree programs.

RE Insider – March 22, 2004 [] Courses taught over the internet seem to be the wave of the future. Many RE organizations offer online distance learning on everything from how to design a photovoltaic system or a passive solar home to how to implement renewables in the developing world. Several of these courses are quite thorough and provide seemingly endless resources and weblinks. While online courses can provide decision-makers with necessary knowledge, and provide a good overview and introduction to technology users and installers, those who actually want to get into the business of RE installations or those wanting to install a system on their own home are encouraged to participate in practical hands-on training. Actually being out in the field wiring together photovoltaic (PV) modules, raising wind towers, and programming inverters is often the best the way for would-be installers to learn the trade. Fortunately, there are organizations around the country that offer high-quality hands-on training opportunities. Do-it-yourselfers Some motivated do-it-yourselfers learn the basics of how to design and install a home PV system in a matter of days. It is not rocket science. However, it does take dedication and commitment to learning. There are organizations that offer anywhere from one day to months-long programs. There are University programs that offer the college student or post-graduates an opportunity to learn the trade. There are also organizations offering women-only training workshops. Finding the program that is right for you is a matter of determining your educational goals, and talking to past participants. At Solar Energy International (SEI), located in the mountains of Colorado, students spend classroom time learning about the different technologies, and then go out into the field to install RE systems. SEI also offers coed and women-only PV workshops around the country. Along with SEI instructors, guest speakers from different aspects of the RE industry give students a unique perspective and understanding of what it’s like to work in the industry. The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) holds workshops from one day to two weeks in rural Wisconsin. Students can choose from a multitude of different renewable energy workshops depending on ability and setting (rural, urban, tribal lands, etc. . . ). And the workshops are taught in their solar and wind powered classroom facility. Participants who attend the Solar Living Institute’s one and two day workshops get to spend their time on the beautiful 12 acre RE powered campus in northern California. Accredited Training Programs and Certification Solar electric (photovoltaic) accreditation is a recent development in the RE education movement. The Photovoltaic (PV) certification movement in the U.S. is being directed by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). Since April 2001, the non-profit organization NABCEP has been developing a voluntary national certification program – starting with credentials for photovoltaic practitioners. NABCEP is a representative board with involvement of the solar industry, independent installers, balance-of-systems manufacturers, labor, contractors, training organizations, educators, national laboratories, and government. The next national certification exam will be held April 17, 2004. In order to qualify to take the voluntary four-hour written exam, one must meet the prerequisites of related experience and/or education. There are over a half dozen different ways these prerequisites can be met. These include: having four years experience installing PV systems; one year experience in installation plus an electrical license; or two years of experience installing systems plus having been trained at a board recognized training program. Other requirements to qualify for the certification exam can be found at the NABCEP website listed below. In order to guide PV installers toward quality training programs, the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Power (ISP) provides third-party accreditation to renewable energy, energy efficiency, and distributed generation training programs and certification of trainers. Currently only four organizations in the United States (Solar Energy International, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, SUNY Farmingdale, and the Florida Solar Energy Center) are ISP accredited training institutions, along with a number of others around the world. Several other renewable training institutions, in the U.S. and worldwide, are in the process of obtaining accreditation. Higher Education Degree Programs Along with workshops that teach people how to design and install PV systems, there are also a handful of programs offered through universities that actually provide students with a degree in renewable energy. The renewable energy program at San Juan College gives students a solid foundation in the fundamental physics and design/installation techniques required to work with renewable technologies. The concentration in Photovoltaic System Design and Installation is offered as an associate of applied science degree. Students receiving their Masters of Science in Energy Engineering at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell not only learn to perform state-of-the-art work on solar energy systems, but have been able to travel to Peru to install PV systems in rural health clinics. Children Imagine a whole generation of kids who learn about solar energy and wind power along with their reading, writing and arithmetic. Imagine kids graduating from high school not only knowing how to solve an algebraic equation but also knowing how a solar cell works. Dedicated RE educators are working hard to help get renewable energy curriculum into schools. There are teacher trainings, curriculum available online and by mail-order, renewable energy youth camps, after school programs and summer programs. For example, teachers wanting to incorporate renewable energy into their curriculum can download the Solar Wonders educational unit from the Florida Solar Energy Center’s website. The curriculum helps give students an awareness of the power of solar energy and shows its impact on their lives. Youth who want to get more involved in renewable energy can join Solar Energy International’s Renewable Energy Youth Camp, and spend a week in the Rocky Mountains learning about solar energy. Students aged 15 – 19 have built solar race cars and solar ovens, toured solar homes, and installed PV systems. Once you decide what outcome you want from your training, you need to sift through the ever-growing number of schools, organizations and institutions that offer training programs. The following list at this LINK (.pdf) should help you find the courses, seminars or trainings that are right for you. Contact the organizations individually to find out more about the programs they offer. About the author… Laurie Stone is the International Program Manager at Solar Energy International, PO Box 715, Carbondale, CO 81623. tel: 970-963-8855, fax: 970-963-8866,
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