Is a NABCEP Certification Really Necessary to Install Solar?

My first encounter with NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners) occurred several years ago. At the time, I found solar energy to be an exciting area to move my established electrical contracting company into. Austin Energy had just introduced their solar photovoltaic (PV) rebate program. So with an empty pad of paper in hand, I took the 45 minute drive north to learn more about their program. I was convinced of my qualifications – after all I had passed the requirements to get my master electrician’s license. That, along with some very extensive military weapon system training, gave me a resume full of very significant qualifications.

What I was told was blunt and to the point: “You have the legal right as a licensed electrical contractor to install solar arrays, but you don’t qualify as an Austin Energy-approved solar installer unless you are NABCEP certified.” In other words, without the piece of paper, I would not be allowed to build a grid-tied system in Austin, nor would they pay a rebate to my customers.

Back then, in order to qualify for the semi-annual exam candidates had to have been responsible for installing at least two solar arrays in the recent past, had several years of electrical or solar installation experience (I easily had that one covered), and have taken 40 approved solar classroom hours of training. I was of the opinion that after they saw my electrical contracting resume they would eagerly invite me to take the test. And how difficult could a test covering six pages in the National Electrical Code book actually be? (The book has since been expanded with much more comprehensive coverage of solar PV practices.)

Needless to say, NABCEP wasn’t very impressed with my application package. My first thought was that the few solar companies who had people with the certification were protecting their turf. In the early days of NABCEP, this might have been the public perception. But to actually prove that the certification was really worth the paper it was printed on, I would have to go through all of the requirements to qualify and then pass the exam. I didn’t like it, but those were the rules of the game.

It took me months after that first trip to Austin before I could repeat what the acronym “NABCEP” stood for twice in a row. It has taken me years to appreciate what they have come to represent. It took me two years to meet the testing qualifications – I designed and built the systems, completed the training and paid the fees. After I finished the practice exam, I found that I would need to invest even more time to pass the real one.

The NABCEP certification exam is not a walk in the park. To pass it, you need to have a solid understanding of the National Electrical Code and know how to properly design and install solar arrays. In case you are wondering, I passed the exam on my first attempt. But until the day the official letter came in the mail, I still had my doubts. For me, that exam ranked in difficulty right up there with the national master electricians exam, missile crew qualification, and raising children.

Now that I have been in the solar design and installation business exclusively for a few years now, I’ve learned a few things about the industry. First of all, there are a lot of unqualified solar installers selling their services who have no background in electrical contracting. Secondly, there are a lot of electrical contractors who are not qualified to design and build solar arrays (even though they have the legal credentials to do so). By the same token, there are a lot of engineers and architects who are also not qualified to design solar arrays. But what I have also found is that the true discriminators between the qualified and unqualified are the skills learned through specialized solar training and the application of that training towards actual successful solar projects.

In the end, the real question is whether or not the NABCEP Certification is of any real value. There are some very good solar installations completed by those without the certification.  But now that I’ve seen the solar business from both sides, I must admit that going through the NABCEP certification process has made me a much higher qualified solar professional.

The true test of a certification’s value is the amount of effort required to achieve it. Now that I have the piece of paper, I am admittedly biased in favor of the NABCEP Certification as a discriminator. But don’t take my word for it – ask some of the hundreds who have been trying unsuccessfully to get their certifications if it’s easy. Then ask those who own systems designed and installed by NABCEP certified solar installers what they believe.

Now that I’ve shared my opinion, what do you think? Is a NABCEP certification really necessary?

Previous articleDefine ‘Green’ Please
Next articleTosoh adds thin-film sputtering target subsidiary in Shanghai
Avatar
Mr. Boyd, born in Bentonville, Arkansas, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science from the University of Arkansas and a Master’s Degree in Operations Management, also from the University of Arkansas. Additionally, he has over 30 years of management and leadership experience. His electrical career began in high school as an apprentice electrician and continued throughout his college years to follow. James served 12 years of active duty in the Air Force from 1973 to 1985 in Logistics and as a Titan II ICBM Launch Officer. He held a “Top Secret” military clearance that involved a comprehensive background investigation into every aspect of his public and private activities. From 1985 to 1990, he was a Real Estate Broker Associate and Real Estate Securities Broker-Dealer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During that time he worked for the leading Real Estate syndication firms in the state of New Mexico: Jack Clifford and Company and RJ Schaefer and Associates. Mr. Boyd worked directly on such projects as Class A office buildings, high-rise medical offices, business parks, commercial and industrial land syndications, and a “AAA” rated RV park. His career in real estate was curtailed by the real estate crash of the late '80s. He left the Clifford Company to work with the Schaefer Company in 1986. Mr. Boyd continued to work independently in the real estate business after leaving the Schaefer Company in 1987 and had also remained in the active Air Force Reserves after leaving active duty. In 1990, Mr. Boyd was employed by the Air Force in a nuclear weapons activity and worked in a number of high-level government positions including that of Air Force Civilian Career Program Manager at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. In 1998 he graduated from the Dale Carnegie Course receiving the Dale Carnegie Highest Award for Achievement. From 1999 to 2003, Mr. Boyd served a three-year active-duty tour at Headquarters Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas; where he worked a special project that involved direct participation in a RAND Corporation study. This active-duty tour coincided with the 911 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. He retired in June 2003, as a Lieutenant Colonel from the Air Force Reserves with 30 years of combined active-duty and reserve experience. He is a Vietnam Era Veteran and directly participated in the winning of the Cold War by serving as a Titan II Missile Launch Officer. He founded Premier CIRE Systems in 2002 while completing his active-duty assignment with the Air Force Reserves. That company grew from a two man operation with annual sales of $28,000 to a million dollar plus commercial electrical contracting and solar installation company. The company employed up to 20 full-time members and had a portfolio of quality commercial projects such as National Tire and Battery, Kirkland's Home Stores, Icing by Claire, Freddy's Frozen Custard Restaurants, Allied Institute of Medicine, The Shops at Creekside in New Braunfels, Texas, and others. In addition it had a service customer base that included H-E-B Food Stores, US Maintenance Services, Pilot Truck Centers and the McKenna Foundation. Premier originally focused on commercial electrical construction, and commercial service and repair. In 2007 the company added solar energy development and installation to its list of services. Beginning in 2008 the company had completed small distributed generation projects and had competed for large array solar generation development contracts. On 31 October 2009, Premier CIRE-Systems permanently closed so that Hoss could focus all of his attention on commercial solar development and integration. On 23 November 2009, Hoss founded Tierra Verde Solar Inc. The new company picked up where the old one left off, by designing and building a number of small commercial solar projects. Tierra Verde (meaning “Green Earth”) completed its first solar project in December 2009. In 2013, Hoss formed TeraVolt Energy with a broader focus on solar project development and electricity brokerage. As a supporter of Green Energy and energy conservation, Hoss is a member of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum and the Energy Reliability of Texas Emerging Technologies Working Group. In 2009 Hoss was accepted into the MENSA organization. He is an active member of Oakwood Baptist Church in New Braunfels Texas, where he has served in the church music program and on a team that accounts for and deposits weekly church contributions. He holds the rank of Third Degree Black Belt in Soryu Karate (the fourth level Black Belt in the Soryu style of Karate) as a martial arts instructor. In October 2010, Hoss was awarded the Certified PV Professional Installer national certification by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). He was at that time only one of less than ten Texas licensed Master Electricians to receive this national solar certification.

No posts to display