Solar is a serious business, and anyone who makes the decision to buy a PV system relies on installers to do a great job. No-one wants a dodgy electricity plant on their roof. Solar is also a dangerous business and a competitive one. That’s why the Clean Energy Council sets strict rules of accreditation and it’s also why the registered training organisations that pump out installers keep high standards.

As more electricians add PV skills to their repertoire, the solar classrooms around Australia are running hot.

“A lot of new people are trying to get into the industry,” says Holmesglen senior training coordinator renewable energy David Tolliday. “Most of them are electricians who recognise solar is here to stay and are expanding their businesses. They feel that if they don’t get on board, they’re going to miss out.”

Grid-connect courses are in hot demand at SkillBuild, which runs training centres in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Darwin and Albury and also operates a mobile training unit that can pop up in Mildura, Horsham and Launceston, to name a few places. “That’s how we started 10 years ago, with me driving around Australia a few times,” says founder and trainer Bill Gammon.

“Electricians have worked out [solar] is just part of our skillset, and they’ve got to do it. Particularly in Queensland and South Australia, where it is a big part their work.”

Repairs to older solar systems and patchy newer ones are a big part of the workload for many graduates. “Many systems are more than five years old now … and that’s an industry in itself,” he says. “The early inverters were warranted for five years and with some of them if you made it to five years you were doing pretty well, to be honest. Most of them have been kicked off the CEC’s approved products list.”

The gatekeepers

The solar industry stands on the work of installers and there is no room for shoddy systems or pushy sales tactics. Chris Martell, director of operations and engineering at Global Sustainable Energy Solutions (GSES), sees part of a trainer’s job is not only to pass along practical skills but to empower students so they can protect themselves against overzealous solar sales companies.

“If they are the ones who are liable for the work that’s been installed and the designs they are getting from the sales company are not appropriate then hopefully after training with us they have the information they need to protect themselves,” he says.

Trainers have to comply with units of competence that are geared towards residential, Martell says. Because of that, GSES is developing advanced topic courses, including utility-scale solar. “You can go through the core training with us and then get additional knowledge where you require it, such as secondary mains protection, zero export, operations and maintenance, utility scale, etc. We have all of those on offer,” he says.

The Electro-Training Institute in Queensland also sees enrolments from utility-scale employees. “The theory is very similar from 1kW to 1MW, with varying requirements from the service providers in their installation area,” says Electro-Training director Jeff McRobb. “I would not envy these designers dealing with the constantly changing goalposts from the national service providers, AEMO, Powerlink, etc.”

McRobb’s biggest gripe at the moment is with rooftop isolators. “To introduce such a catastrophic fault point on someone’s roof for no apparent reason is beyond me,” he says.

The value in training

There’s a problem in the industry that many electricians don’t regard the expense of a course as an investment in their future. If they don’t value education, they won’t charge for it. This leads to a problem where contractors undercharge the big suppliers – and devalue their skills.

“You don’t spend money on study and then don’t charge for it,” one source told EcoGeneration. “That’s a problem in the industry: a lot of these guys don’t value their training knowledge and their licences.

“They have this perception that if they’re working 12 hours a day, seven days a week that they must be making money. It’s a real problem – it always has been.”

Training packages must comply with a national standard and are audited by the Australian Skills Quality Authority, but the feeling among trainers is the approved curriculum material doesn’t change quickly enough to reflect what’s going on in the industry. “That’s where the guys get a little bit frustrated,” says Tolliday.

GSES training programs manager Elizabeth Joannou agrees. “There is something of a disconnect of what we are required to train and what the industry needs,” she says. “Our job is to bridge that gap.”

For example, battery storage courses are still very focused on lead-acid technology, she says, whereas the industry has moved on to lithium technology. “The units have to be updated but the process for that takes years,” she says. “That holds the industry back.”

Australian Industry Standards develops training packages for the solar install industry. EcoGeneration tried to contact them for this story but got nowhere.

Shifting standards

Students sometimes are daunted by changes to standards and guidelines, and some in the industry would say there are more changes than make absolute sense. Not everyone agrees that the CEC’s accreditation assessment is rigorous or stringent enough.

Gammon points to the standards committee changes as a particular frustration, for example the change to the standard about current rating on isolators in June last year. “That has made a huge difference to what isolators they can use, and I would think that most installers aren’t aware of this.”

Even wholesalers are sometimes unaware of changes and continue selling equipment that has been rendered non-compliant. If the wholesalers haven’t worked it out, how can installers? “It’s a bit of a worry for installers.”

The demands of the job and the requirement to keep up with professional development make it hard to keep up with changes – especially for installers in regional areas. “A lot of the people coming to our courses think it’s just electrical work, and it’s not,” Gammon says. “It is specialised electrical work … and a lot of it is IT work. The wiring is the easy bit; it’s getting the thing working at the end that can be time-consuming.”

Younger students might take to the IT side of the solar installer skillset a bit better than the older ones – to make a huge generalisation. “It’s a language they speak very well.”

An RTO that puts standards first will earn the long-term respect of graduates as well as other trainers, says Steve Kostoff, CEO of the Solar Training Centre, an RTO which runs facilities in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

“Students expectations for solar training are high. They want to engage with skilled trainers who actually install solar and batteries; they want the most relevant and up-to-date content from an RTO they can trust and they want to work on the newest technology and equipment. When they leave the classroom they want to confidently go straight to work,” Kostoff says.

“We value industry and government collaborations and have a clear focus on developing solar as an industry to ultimately help society move away from fossil fuels – we know solar is unstoppable and we have to do it right”.

Flat batteries

Contrary to an observation by energy consultant Marchment Hill that there are not enough skilled battery installers to fulfil demand among developers of virtual power plant projects, Gammon says he could offer plenty more storage courses if there was demand for it. “Sometimes students ring me two years after they’ve done the [storage] course and say, right, I’m just about to do my first battery,” he says. 

Storage works, but the technology is rendered expensive in many applications where tariffs just do not support it. In some jurisdictions the payback period might be longer than the expected life of a battery. 

Demand for storage courses was up and down last year, says McRobb at Electro-Training. The year started off well with the CEC requirement for stand-alone accredited installers to hold the battery storage endorsement, but he suspects a drop off in the second half of the year might be blamed on the end of the Queensland government’s rebate for batteries.

“Demand for storage in domestic solar grid-connect installations is still fairly low in Queensland,” McRobb says. “As the prices of the new technology in batteries come down we are seeing increasing demand.”

Tolliday is yet to see a shift in demand for battery training. “The demand is not there.” The storage market is small, so far, but growing.

Gammon can gauge the rise in demand for commercial and industrial solar PV by the inquires he gets for follow up from students. “Five years ago we would not have had our students doing those sorts of jobs, but it seems to be really common now – 30, 60, 80kW jobs.” The low margins and scramble for money in domestic solar is enough to encourage graduates to aim higher, and graduates may be only a few months out of a grid-connect course before they’re making inquiries about applications bigger than 30kW. 

Electro Training, Townsville

Classroom appliances

Like some other training organisations GSES also runs a consulting arm, which Martell believes gives it an advantage in staying ahead of standards and guidelines, network updates and technology updates. “We see [new technology] when it’s brand new and hitting the ground and then we pass all that information to the training side of the company,” he says. “It’s a constant effort to keep all of that information up to date.”

Some training organisations will be more willing to buy a variety of equipment for students to learn with whereas others might choose a cheaper route of hanging on to limited, older gear or forming a relationship with a manufacturer, which risks a biased outcome for graduates.

Gear bought only a few years ago could look redundant in the classroom where students want to handle the latest technology. Products change at a quick pace, and it’s expensive to keep up.

“I could easily spend $20,000-$30,000 tomorrow on products that have come out in the last six months,” one trainer told EcoGeneration.

GSES has run a course on tendering commercial and industrial solar, to show how installers can get into C&I and be effective. “Undercutting is not something we would recommend,” he says. “It’s wrong to say [smaller installers] should be locked out of [the C&I] market, but getting involved in a more strategic way would be better.”

Intake for stand-alone is very low at GSES, as it is at the other RTOs. “It’s a specialised field,” Joannou says. “We recommend you do PV and batteries first; then you know the basics and can focus on the higher risk nature of … being the essential service provider. It requires a lot more maths and creativity. It’s not for everyone.” The off-grid industry is small but dedicated. Customers are for life.