Solar Jobs and Seeing the Light

While various professional solar journals like SEIA, Solar Energy and ASME report the employment numbers, sometimes the dots aren’t getting connected. The development of the labor force presents the industry with some significant challenges. Some are easier to fix than others, but it’s clear that there’s more at play than just a trend line going up or down.

Solar installers are having a hard time filling critical positions on their job sites. It’s due in part to a lack of trained professionals and assurances that new hires are indeed qualified. Another roadblock comes from several state governments’ requirements.

In all, 85.1% of the installation firms report their hiring efforts as either somewhat or very difficult. At a time when well-paying jobs are at a premium, that shouldn’t be so. It’s a significant obstacle to the expansion of solar energy nationwide. According to most installers, the hardest positions to fill are qualified electricians, and here, state regulations play a significant role. Twelve states require that only licensed journeyman electricians may be employed at solar installation sites.

A big issue under the surface

State governments throughout the nation have created patchwork regulations governing installation services and who is allowed to do it. Much of the laws focus on the requirements to employ journeyman electricians to do the electrical work. SEIA’s 2018 Job Census offers a prime example of the roadblock and its impact in a Minnesota Case Study. Solar installations in the state are thriving. They consider all solar installations to be electrical work and they require the placement of one journeyman or master level electrician for every two non-licensed electricians. It creates a “bottleneck” in hiring and sets up other problems:

  • There aren’t enough electricians to be had in the state, so installation firms have to go out of state;
  • Since this is a licensing requirement—not a matter of certification, electricians can only be imported from states with reciprocal agreements with Minnesota;
  • 43% of the installers state that electrician positions are the most difficult to fill (they are the third most difficult nationally);
  • Out-of-state resources do 10% of all installation work.

Interstate Renewable Energy Council provides a solution or at least a tool to deal with it all. IREC has a database of licensing requirements, certifications and policies and incentive program for every state. On the one hand, it’s a boon to consumers who need to know what the requirements and programs are in their state; on the other hand, it takes a database to navigate the maze.

Licensing vs. Certification

As with just about everything solar, there’s a debate over standards and how to address the problem.

Advocates for licensing are firm in their belief that requiring installers to use only state-approved, licensed electrician guarantees both safety and quality. They also see an industry which so far, is broadly unregulated and think their states need to step in to fill the gap.

Opponents see state licensing as a limit to mobility at a time when power suppliers are crossing state lines regularly. The power industry is moving to a larger regional, multi-state business model. California, always a leader in energy generation and policy is a prime example. There are disputes as forces gather both for and against the expansion. Proponents point to increased availability and more significant load balancing throughout the region and a lowering of power costs. It’s also seen as a boost to California’s effort to meet its Green Power Goals by 2030. One of the most significant benefits will come from uniting the 38 power regions currently supplying electricity across the American West. Each of them needs to build and maintain its backup plants and support systems. Eliminating that cost alone will save billions. Opponents claim that the bill will create a power giant and a monopoly and will in fact raise consumer prices. Some also fear that the inter-state solution will increase federal control over California energy development and today, that means more considerable obstacles for both solar and wind power. Their case probably doesn’t hold water, and fears won’t outweigh the gains.

Full Set of Thirty Solar Panels Installed on the Roof
Photo: Jon Callas / Flickr

While the power is moving across state lines, solar installations aren’t, and it’s due to state regulations and the lack of national standards.

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is a nation-wide non-profit organization promoting the development of national quality standards based on voluntary certification. They’ve entered the debate in a big way—as expected. NABCEP views licensing as restrictive by nature. As a rule, licenses don’t transfer unless states have reciprocal agreements in place and few of them do. Only 12 states (13 if you count Puerto Rico) have licensing requirements. While it’s hoped that licensure will promote better and safer solar installations, they aren’t directly about quality. Certification is anchored in technical skill, and it offers a wide array of benefits to installation firms and consumers:

  • NABCEP requires that certification applicants have a full year’s experience supported by documentation for both their training and their installation work;
  • Applicants receive training in NABCEP’s ethics code and have to sign it;
  • Have to pass NABCEP’s exam (not a cake walk); take continuing education courses and be re-certified every three years;
  • Certification supports consumer confidence, and finally
  • Certification based on national standards is portable and promote quality standards in states that don’t require licensing.

Licensing and certification have different advantages and disadvantages. From a financial point of view, voluntary national certification is preferable to state licensing because it’s focused on quality and results in a lower cost of installation. Consumers get a more substantial range of choices among installation firms, and mandatory licensing won’t provide that. In states that do not require solar contractor licensing, certification can provide a baseline level of quality. State licensing may be restrictive, as state licenses do not typically transfer, so geographic mobility is limited. However, state licensing can protect consumers from potential safety hazards and will help ensure that systems are correctly installed.

Most advocates agree that certification does provide more benefits. However, licensing is preferable to having no professional standards in place. Installation quality has been and still is an immense issue throughout the industry, although improvements are being made.

Crossed wires and soft costs

Solar Magazine: Solar Industry News and Insights

Anyone following the solar power business understands that “soft costs,” is a significant problem for the industry and its been and remains an impediment to growth. Few people dig deeper for a look at what those costs are. The Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS) sent huge shock waves through the solar industry when it released its 2014 report finding that an astounding 86% of all solar installations nationally, had at least one failure point. For all the noise about hiring only journeyman electricians—most of the failures concerned wiring. There are several reasons for it; proprietary racking systems have different electrical saddles for connection, various configurations for wiring runs, conduits and inverters. It comes down to a lack of national standards and inadequate training.

Low quality is a massive driver for soft costs, and in 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy decided to do something about it through the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s SunShot development grant program. One of the awards went to Interplay Learning, a leading web-based technical training firm using advanced 3D simulations, Virtual Reality (VR) and a rigorous training curriculum to fix the problem.

Interplay Solar provides an “immersive” training experience with courses for all levels of installers. It’s no surprise that electrical installation, DC-side failures, low power failures, and ground fault and electrical commission make up 5 of the 13 courses offered.

Interplay Solar offers training to NABCEP certification, and the curriculum was developed by Mark Mrohs, often regarded as the foremost authority on solar power installation. It’s probably the truth—or at least close to it. Mr. Mrohs has been the training director for ARCO Solar, Siemens Solar, AstroPower, SunPower, and Sun Edison and was the Program Manager and Lead Instructor for the 1st World Bank-funded national photovoltaic training program in India. As for Interplay Solar’s claim to provide training to certification, Mrohs is a member of the NABCEP Exam Review Committee.

The debate over licensure or certification will continue. While professional organizations press for national voluntary standards, it won’t be easy going. Lobbying a dozen states to accept certification means a fight over both standards and power. One thing is clear; the solar industry could be in for a rougher ride when installation stops at the state line. comment↓

* Cover photo credit: Jon Callas / Flickr


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