The growing demand for alternative energy and sustainable construction, buoyed by the $43 billion in stimulus funding earmarked for energy-related projects, will require teams of trained electrical contractors. The best news is, with some additional education, there’s no other trade more qualified to install and commission the work.
When Boots on the Roof, a Fremont, Calif., solar and wind training provider, was contemplating educational programming with environmental impact, its vision came into focus in the electrical market.
“We found that electrical contractors could drive a renewable--energy transformation in this country. They can change a building from a system that consumes energy to a system that produces all or some of the energy it needs locally, and we wanted a program that was very specific to what a contractor would need,” said Chuck Rames, program director, renewable energy systems, Boots on the Roof.
Fueled by federal and state incentives, leases, power purchase agreements and several other new financial models, alternative installations are increasing. And, with estimates of the electrical portion of solar and wind projects ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the total installation, there’s an urgency to equip business managers and crews with the specific skill sets to match the opportunities.
“We’re living in a world that requires a lot of training be--cause there are a lot of different choices we didn’t have 10 to 15 years ago,” said Mike Harvey, co-owner of a Wisconsin-based training company, Synergized Solar.
Becoming qualified to install and commission projects requires contractors to wear several extra hats: carpenter, surveyor, field engineer, lineman and equipment operator. While dozens of training organizations and resources exist nationwide, contractors and other industry sources point to one key tool in the toolbox.
“The most important credential is the contractor’s license,” Rames said.
State requirements vary, but, in most places, the license separates a qualified energy professional from an interested environmentalist. Additionally, the standard framework rounds out with National Electrical Code changes, specifically, Article 690, and compliance with local building codes.
The more than 300 National Electrical Contractors Association-International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (NECA-IBEW) training facilities across the country have been gearing up for a renewable future. According to the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) Executive Director Mike Callanan, the NJATC recently collected more than 70 green training lessons, which are already being taught, and combined them into a “Green Jobs” curriculum.
Solar Installer Training and Certification
The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is a voluntary organization that assesses knowledge through its certification and entry-level examinations. NABCEP’s newest credential is for qualified electricians who work in nonsupervisory roles on PV crews and focuses on the principles of application, design and operation of grid-tied PV systems.
“NABCEP makes people not just chase dollars and ruin an industry. They actually have to dedicate time and resources, which means they’re fully engaged,” said Mike Harvey, co-owner of Synergized Solar. —DM
“Electrical construction projects within the green jobs field will include photovoltaics, fuel cells, biomass and wind turbines as examples of electrical-generation technologies working in parallel with utility-scale power generation. This creation of a variant subset of the ‘smart grid’ technologies requires combining the skills of outside linemen, inside wiremen and telecommunications workers,” Callanan said.
A recent example of the green jobs training is the new 55-foot-tall windmill constructed at Omaha’s Electrical Training Facility last October. The tower is the crown jewel in the hands-on wind-training coursework provided by the Nebraska Chapter of NECA and Local Nos. 22, 265, 231 and 1525 of the IBEW.
Electrical contractors can also choose from countless private and governmental programs, organizations, associations, community colleges and universities that are developing renewable--energy programs with training components. For instance, this spring, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) announced a new five-day course to train and certify installers of photovoltaic (PV) products and systems.
David Reinemann, vice president of renewable energy for MYR Group, Rolling Meadows, Ill., said the formal education needed to compete for the utility-scale wind power projects that the company seeks is consistent with the company’s general training philosophy. MYR companies rely on its NECA-IBEW relationship and the NJATC for primary training of linemen. Other educational models consist of in-house training along with private training programs and lineman curriculum at local colleges.
“A lot of the skills required for high-voltage work and underground/overhead collection systems are the same skills we have used in our utility work for over 100 years,” Reinemann said.
Regardless of the educational source, contractors know what learning format works best for them. Results from the “2010 Profile of the Electrical Contractor” research study indicate that, for 62 percent of respondents, hands-on training is the single preferred method of learning about new products, technology or systems. In contrast, one-on-one, classroom, self-paced videos/CD and webinars are each preferred by between 5 and 10 percent of electrical contractors.
Energy efficiency first
Rebates, tax credits and other incentives vary widely from state to state and utility to utility, but there’s one constant in the renewable-energy movement. Contractors and other industry experts agree that any discussion of renewable-energy solutions needs to start with understanding how to help customers improve their energy efficiency.
Larry Hurwitz, CEO, Broadway Electrical Co. Inc., Dorchester, Mass., points out the value of a holistic approach.
“You can’t just put solar panels on someone’s roof and walk away without looking at the lighting, air conditioning and mechanical system for an entire package,” Hurwitz said.
Contractors need to learn about building the alternative into the electrical system. Where can they pick up that information? For one, in addition to its product training, Schneider Electric offers a comprehensive free online curriculum intended to provide education in assessing, measuring and monitoring a site to gain the greatest efficiencies, said Johanne Greenwood, director of Schneider Electric’s Global Energy Efficiency Programme.
“Reducing the consumption of the home or business helps to reduce the size of the renewable-energy system you would need. Alternatively, it would increase the surplus available from your renewable-energy system and allow you to sell more power back to the utility,” Greenwood said.
Solar projects are involved, but the SolarNovar Dual-Axis Tracker has been designed as an on- or off-grid modular system to help simplify installation and produce more energy, according to Greg Brienza of SolarNovar.
The 6,900-watt DC system is a three-piece field installation that includes a foundation, structure pole and energy collector. The panel tilts and angles to follow the sun, which the company projects can increase output up to 45 percent versus a stationary ground-mount array.
“I’m a tradesman, so we built the trade right into the tracker. It’s programmed when it leaves our assembly and is ready to track as soon as it gets power from the grid,” Brienza said.
Currently, the PV panels, grounding, inverter and tracking controls are factory-installed, but SolarNovar hopes to expand distributorships, installation and maintenance to contractors throughout the United States.
“If you can install site lighting, you can install the tracker with a three-man crew and a bucket truck in three hours. I would spend more time putting a barbecue grill together,” Brienza said. —DM
Getting what you need
In its five- and six-day boot camps for wind and solar in California and solar in New Jersey, Boots on the Roof focuses on all of the additional installation aspects that electrical contractors aren’t trained to perform.
“We cover what’s going to be new to them, such as solar surveys, sizing a system, inverters, panels, sales and the proper way to wire a high-voltage direct current system,” Rames said.
Broadway Electrical reentered the PV market two years ago, after last participating in a pilot solar program at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in the 1980s. Residential solar is 10 percent of the company’s focus for its renewable business unit and has moved toward utility-scale solar and long-term diversification into wind and biomass. The firm’s approach is to gain instruction for groups of employees who will then train their colleagues.
“We’re constantly sending our employees to one and two-day courses to keep updated on the latest equipment,” Hurwitz said.
Specialized education is important, Hurwitz said, but it doesn’t stop there.
“Safety training is the most important aspect to all of this. Whether it’s a wind turbine or putting panels on someone’s roof or even ground mounts, you’re dealing with high voltages, and you may have a crane involved,” Hurwitz said.
Synergized Solar’s Mike Harvey concurred, based on feedback from his company’s five-day course designed for medium-to-large residential installations and small-to-medium commercial projects.
“Contractors want training on systems, best practices for installations and safety precautions. They want to know how you secure a safety harness on a finished roof. Stuff that, as an electrician, we never deal with,” Harvey said.
Harvey added that the investment in renewable-systems training is similar to specialty training on automation systems, lighting or controls.
“It’s a one-week investment to at least get a really good taste in your mouth for how PV works. Students can feel confident that they can walk out the door and install a pretty basic system with no qualms,” Harvey said.
MYR’s core renewable-energy work is wind installations for developers and utilities, requiring crews to generally furnish and install “balance-of-system” components, such as collection systems, substations, switchyards and any necessary transmission lines. Crews also have performed tower wiring, foundation grounding and installing tower foundation conduits. For some specific training needs, MYR has sought manufacturers to come on-site to provide product training.
“We prefer to have well-rounded linemen that can work on a wind farm or on a utility project. This allows us to be flexible with our resources and meet our clients’ needs,” Reinemann said. “And, properly trained workers are in everyone’s best interest.”
MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Solar Energy Society
American Wind Energy Association
Boots on the Roof
Database for State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiencies
Department of Energy
Interstate Renewable Energy Council
National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee
North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners
Solar Energy International