It’s been said that opportunities in solar power photovoltaics—abound for electrical contractors. True or false? You be the judge.

Thirty-five states provide some type of solar incentive, ranging from sales tax and property tax waivers to investment credits. The solar industry, especially grid-tied installations, is growing at 20 to 30 percent per year.

“When the Energy Commission started its rebate program in 1998, only 41 systems were installed through the program that year, amounting to just over or $543,000 in rebates,” said Dale Trenschel, Emerging Renewables Program of the California Energy Commision. “In 2002, over 2,000 systems were installed and rebate payments exceeded $35 million. So far this year, 700 PV systems have been installed through the program, resulting in $14 million in rebate payments.” Solar power is growing in other states as well, yet so few grid-connected systems were installed prior to 1998 that few electrical contractors have experience installing them. Will others join in? There are several groups out there working to ensure that they do.

Three years ago, a coalition of organizations including the Institute for Sustainable Power, the Florida Solar Energy Center and the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Center (NJATC) recognized the need for a trained PV workforce.

That led the North America Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) to use a consensus-building procedure to develop a voluntary certification program for installers of PV systems that will be unveiled in the latter half of 2003.

An important goal of the voluntary program is to create a trained work force so as to interest financial institutions and inspire consumer confidence in the solar industry. The NJATC is offering Train the Trainer courses in PV. Local JATCs and equipment manufacturers also offer training.

“The traditional wire-splicing methods used with AC can’t be used with DC. Electrical contractors know what to do, they just need to be told what’s acceptable,” said Todd Stafford, training director for NJATC.

“Up until the last few years, the industry was led by a lot of solar gypsies who were used to wiring a 12V system for an RV or battery backup for a remote cabin,” said Gbryal Wisehart, President, New Path Renewables/Stellar Energy Solutions. “The grid-tied community needs an air of professionalism.”

Widespread use would also make a difference. “We need to make it so that PV becomes more of an appliance vs. an oddity,” said Brian Crise, instructor, NECA/IBEW Training Center, Local 48 in Portland, Ore. Crise attended a NJATC Train the Trainer Program and now offers apprentice and journeyman programs at his center. As a result, trained electrical contractors in his area are taking on projects.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the game,” said Wendell Morris, general foreman, Dynalectric, Portland, Ore., who was trained at both Local 48 and in classes presented by manufacturers. “We recently completed a 32kW project, a 269,700 square-foot, mixed-use development in Portland at Block 4 of the former Blitz-Weinhard building.”

While many contractors use their electrical license in lieu of experience as their qualification, some contractors are confronting other restrictions. “We’ve done two PV projects,” said Arnie Johnson, Neal Electric, Poway, Calif. “We did the electrical portion, the design and AC side, but we didn’t place the panels. We’re a subcontractor to a C46.

Here’s the problem: Some of these jobs require a C46 or five years experience before you can bid them. Many NECA contractors don’t even qualify for the bid list. Until certification is set up, the only way that you have to bid work is to have the experience. In the meantime we’re the subcontractor. The jobs are $20,000-$30,000 jobs, small ones, but we are doing them because we need to be at the forefront.”

Bidding is another problem. Why? Steven Strong, president of Solar Design Associates Inc., a Massachusetts architectural/engineering firm specializing in the integration of renewable energy systems, said, “We work with NECA and solar installers depending on region, project, scope and requirements. One of the problems is that contractors don’t know how to bid this stuff because they have little or no experience and that results in costs higher than they should or need to be. When people have an understanding of what’s involved, they’ll have a sharper pencil.”

Larry Liles, international representative, IBEW, explains. “No standard time and material bid calculations has been developed by the electrical community. There’s nothing to refer to.

Everything becomes a custom installation. That makes it difficult.”

At this point in the growth of the grid-tied industry, cooperation between the players is an important element. Christenson Electric of Bend, Ore., teamed up with an established solar company, New Path Renewables/Stellar Energy Solutions, to install a 32kW project on Ray’s Supermarket. “It’s such a young industry and this is working very well,” said Bill Taggard, Christenson’s Bend Branch Manager.

Though they have ample experience in the field, New Path Renewables also benefitted. “We’ve associated ourselves with NECA because we know we’re getting safety, reliability and quality that we have not seen in the renewable energy industry until the last few years,” said Wisehart.

In the Boston area, local electrical contractors are benefiting from grant programs and from their association with Solar Design Associates Inc. With their help and overseen by Marty Aikens, Local 103’s Business Agent, 20 area electrical contractors volunteered their time and were trained in the PV process while installing a $40,000 PV system on the roof of the local’s training center—an installation now used in training classes. “It also works and produces 5.4kW,” Aikens said.

His nephew, Herb Aikens, is president of Lighthouse Electric in Pembroke, Mass., and was one of the participants. “It was a way to learn,” he said. And it paid off. Lighthouse teamed up with Solar Design to do the PV work on an area school. More work is on the way. Mass Energy, a nonprofit organization, is working with Solar Boston, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs Program, and has been awarded funds to provide grants from Mass Technology Collaborative’s Renewable Energy Trust for 100kW of solar electricity for approximately 40 installations in the Boston area.

Cost of the systems is reduced by 50 percent through bulk purchasing of PV panels and by working with a pre-established design and installation team. The first home installation was completed in mid-April with panels by Evergreen Solar Inc., Zapotec Energy and by Lighthouse.

Solar Design also worked several years ago with United Electric, Orange County, Calif., on a PV installation at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, Calif. United Power Ltd. of Vancouver, Canada, was the general contractor. “We worked with United Electric and trained them on the job,” said George Ingham, president, United Power Ltd.

Ingham, a long-time advocate of PV as a work opportunity for electrical contractors, formed another organization, National Photovoltaics Construction Partnership (NCPC) in association with the International IBEW, whose purpose is to make it easier for the electrical community to enter the PV market.

“There’s a huge marketplace for PV and our contractors are slow off the mark,” said Ingham. “This is electrical work but contractors are frozen out from purchasing the material at a good rate since solar products are not distributed through the usual outlets.” What’s his solution? His organization has arranged financing and an association with a solar manufacturer so that contractors can apply to his organization for 1-10kW systems that are paid for through NCPC.

Another program offers individuals the opportunity to purchase residential systems for their homes at reduced prices, ones they can self-install, learning PV installation in the process.

“We want to address the problem of getting the materials into the hands of contractors,” said Liles. Ingham added, “We’re using NCPC to build up volume, a way for guys to get in the game. We aim to create enough work for electrical contractors so that wholesalers start carrying the materials.” The NCPC program is now functioning in four states: New Jersey, New York, Illinois and California.

NPCP provided help to San Jose, Calif.’s IBEW Local 332 in the form of arranging a good bulk purchasing price for PV materials when the local was putting together a new headquarters and meeting hall that now includes a 43.4kW flat-panel system on the roof and building integrated PV that includes four, 1-2kW PV generating skylights and 10kW solar sunshades, awnings built on south side of building to cut the glare to offices. Sasco Electric installed the systems.

“The building is a statement to the community about our commitment to alternative energy,” said Jay James, Executive Board Member, Local 332, and it has resulted in the local being designated as the union hub for PV information in California. Since then, contractors have completed 18 PV jobs in the area, some through NCPC.

As the voluntary certification is being readied, electrical contractors gain experience, incentives support the industry as it grows, improvement in the technology and a rise in the variety of building integrated PV materials—windows, roof tiles, wall panels—is making solar power more aesthetically pleasing to consumers. Will this combination of factors give PV the boost it needs?

“Certainly the industry is ready,” said Strong, “but we need some policy changes in Washington. Every other piece of the energy supply and distribution delivery network is heavily subsidized.” Federal energy tax benefits for renewable energy technologies only amount to $100 million per year— with more than 80 percent of this amount going to wind and geothermal.

Is the federal situation soon to change? Perhaps. In early April, the Senate Finance Committee passed legislation that includes a 15-percent tax credit, capped at $2,000, for residential solar electric and solar hot water systems, and extends the existing wind production tax credit (PTC) to solar energy production.

In the House, the Ways & Means Committee passed a similar residential solar tax credit. The House Energy and Commerce Committee also passed legislation that includes model “net metering” and interconnection language. It would only require consideration by state public utility commissions. Will these legislative moves lead to national standards? Stay tuned. EC

CASEY, author of “Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World,” can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.womeninventing.com.