The American Workforce Adapts to the Solar PV Installation Industry

Fri, 2011-08-19 14:34

Within the last 5-10 years, the world has seen an exponential growth in the solar photovoltaic (PV) market. Production has ramped up in the U.S., Germany, China, and Japan and with that has come the demand for distributors, installers and educators. Although much of the growth in the sector can be attributed to utility-scale applications, we are seeing substantial numbers in the residential and commercial sector as well. Grid-tied applications are growing rapidly as owners of dwellings and buildings recognize the benefits of net metering. More often than not, these feats of electrical engineering appear on roofs, which require a myriad of skill sets and ultimately, permits. As a result, a hybrid American workforce is evolving to meet the demands.

What does a proper solar PV installation look like? What type of equipment do we use? How do we properly ground a system? How do we safely fasten an array to a roof? It turns out that in order to adequately answer these questions, one would need expertise in PV products and design, electrical engineering, roofing, site assessment, structural engineering, system commissioning and inspection, OSHA guidelines, and perhaps other trades.

As federal and state agencies scramble to establish standards for the still budding industry, many workers are wearing more hats—according to some—than they should. It is common for individuals without electrical licenses to fully install a PV system. It is just as common for the same individual to install that array on a roof while having very little to no prior roofing experience.

Naturally, the roofing and electrical industries have taken notice. There is legitimate concern from these camps that these installations be done safely and correctly and that they also not be excluded from a growing market. After all, who, other than a roofer, is more qualified to create reliable penetrations in a roof? Furthermore, there are risks of voiding existing roof warranties, as well as potential internal damage due to leakage, that a roofer knows how to navigate. Electricians can make a similar case with concern to proper wiring and grounding, as fires are not uncommon due to faulty wiring.

In reaction, various organizations are beginning to make a case for these respective trades. Presently, we are seeing new solar installer certifications specific to electricians as well as roofers. Until now, we have widely recognized only one national installer certification, which incidentally does not account for these professions. I think separate accreditations will serve to advance the installer/integrator market well through healthy market competition. Having said that, I am not necessarily advocating for a separated solar workforce. Rather, why not a model that incorporates all of the skilled trades into one team? The solar professional does the site assessment and system design, the roofer approves the roof and then properly fastens the array to it, and the electrician wires and grounds the entire system. Everybody gets a piece of the action, and the customer can relax about their investment.

In reality, we will probably see variations of both integrated and individual teams. There are great cases for both, and we are seeing examples of them emerging. For instance, a roofing company offering a complete package in which a roof, solar array, and solar windows are installed simultaneously and warranted under the same contract. Imagine a state of the art, power-producing roof all under the same 20-30 year warranty. It certainly has an appeal and is going to serve a niche. Regardless of what shape the workforce takes, it is exciting to see the solar market advance through the acknowledgement of a wider spectrum of American worker.

If you're interested in learning more about becoming a Solar PV Installer, see Everblue's solar training page.

-Teal B.

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