Alternative-Energy Installations: A Job for Qualified Electrical Contractors

By Rex A. Ferry | Dec 15, 2009
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In last month’s column, I said that power line contractors are leading a revolution in how we make, move and use energy, and that there’s a major role for inside electrical contractors, too. As emerging innovations, such as the smart grid, blur boundaries between these two branches of our industry, coordination between outside and inside—and among the standards that govern our work—will become increasingly important.

The goal is to build a smarter, stronger grid that enables our nation to achieve energy independence through the use of renewable resources. To that end, facilities and homes that use photovoltaic (PV) panels, wind turbines or other alternative-energy-producing equipment must be able to send their unused electricity through the utility lines to other locations that are experiencing higher demand.

That means the United States needs to invest heavily in repairing and expanding the country’s transmission and distribution capabilities. If surplus user-produced energy exceeds the capacity of existing lines, it’s just wasted. And, obviously, we also need more highly trained linemen to handle the work.

However, there is still another thing we need. Simply stated, it should be recognized that the installation of any type of grid-connected power-generating equipment must be performed by those within the electrical industry who have the proper training and experience and that such installations must be subjected to proper electrical inspection.

A few states have laws concerning who can install and service alternative-energy-producing equipment, but I think none spell it out as well as Massachusetts. In January, the Board of State Examiners of Electricians issued a clarification to existing law stipulating that any and all aspects of solar PV system installations within the state must be performed by a Massachusetts-licensed electrician—from making the wiring connections to bolting the panels on rooftops. Additionally, such installations must comply with all applicable codes and manufacturers’ specifications.

This interpretation reflects the long-standing Massachusetts law requiring an electrical license for “individuals who engage in the occupation of installing wires, conduits, apparatus, devices, fixtures, or other appliances that carry or use electricity for light, heat, power, fire warning or security purposes.”

In May, the board sent a letter to the state’s electrical inspectors advising them that “local inspectors of wires should continue to carry out their important public safety role and [ensure PV] installations, as well as all electrical installations, are conducted pursuant to a valid license and permit and in accordance with the State Electrical Code.”

Now, that doesn’t sit well with some folks, including recent graduates of unaccredited solar training programs. (But, hey, if they’re good enough, they can enroll in programs cosponsored by the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and earn the credentials to reach their goals.)

Some naysayers contend that electricians do not have the proper structural construction and building experience to build systems that will withstand New England winters. This ignores the fact that there are simple and well-understood ways to work around this “problem.”

The board itself acknowledges that “some aspects of solar panel installations may require the involvement of building officials as far as the structural integrity of the building or structure.” And NECA acknowledges that there certainly will be situations where it is desirable for electrical contractors to work with other contractors on such projects. Even though the electrical workers who go through our training programs are instructed in the actual mounting of PV systems, we have no problem partnering with, or subcontracting work to, roofers, glaziers or whatever trade it takes to get the job done right—as long as the electrical portion is performed as it should be by electrical professionals.

It annoys me when critics insinuate that the board, which by law is populated primarily by electricians, issued its ruling merely to benefit fellow tradesmen. But I’m not going to speculate on what vested interest those critics are seeking to promote. I don’t have to, since an interpretation of the law shows that safety really is the central concern.

After all, we’re talking about mini-power plants perched on rooftops. It makes sense that any job that involves generating electrical current be performed by qualified electrical workers. Qualifying factors include training—such as that provided by NECA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—in electrical safety that extends beyond the wiring of electrical connections to include such things as proper grounding, load balancing and structural issues.

I should also mention that qualified electrical contractors and their workers are well-versed in the National Electrical Code and other relevant standards. Solar installers certified by nonaccredited programs typically lack such training.

Though other jurisdictions may take somewhat different approaches to regulating alternative energy installations, NECA looks on the Massachusetts ruling as the best practice. Our motto: If electrical current passes through it, it’s electrical work!

About The Author

Rex Ferry was president of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) from 2009 through 2011 and contributed the President's Desk column monthly.

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