A background in trades and an interest in social issues inspired Justin Kearnes up onto the roof to launch solar business RI Trades. He takes EcoGeneration through his transformation.

How did you get started in solar and what drew you in? 

I am a licensed electrician and plumber. Mid-career, partly due to travel and life experiences, I decided I wanted to help combat the cycle of poverty. I completed a degree in social work, majoring in international community development, at UNSW. When I started to mix practical trade skills with community development projects, it became apparent that if you can supply power, water and good sanitation to a community, they can thrive. I had a great understanding of water and sanitation but even as an electrician did not have great understanding of supplying power to a place that did not have any poles or wires. In 2010 I completed a Cert IV in electrical, photovoltaic systems, and started working in the solar industry. Now I am working for myself with a small team of experienced installers who I have the utmost respect and confidence in.

How long have you been doing it and what’s your specialty?

I have worked in the industry since 2010 on the grid-connect side of solar but my interest now is focusing on off-grid and grid-connect with battery storage. My specialty is leaving a completed job behind that is a positive contribution to the industry as a whole.

Tell us about the biggest project you’ve worked on?

A 100kW PV system at Sydney’s Mount St Benedict College. I was working for a large solar company and the install was over four roofs with some considerable distance from PV arrays back to inverters, then from a new sub board back to the main switchboard. Installation was completed during the school holidays; the team onsite was experienced and great to work with. Great experience!

Now tell us about the most challenging one?

It was a 10kW residential in central NSW that tested my knowledge and skills like no other. It was in a remote location and difficulties came up after starting. We did not have all the equipment necessary to complete the job. Only through experience in the industry and being able to think outside the square we were able to make the situation work.

Do you have a favourite type of project?

Being able to provide power anywhere in the world via a stand-alone system is really exciting. Being able to give people more autonomy over the price of power via battery storage is also a big interest.

Are customers pretty clued up about solar or is there still a lot to learn?

As an installer it’s hard to stay on top of all the changes and new technology that keeps evolving within the industry. Customers are always different, some have been sold a system and they care about their bill and nothing more. Others are quite the opposite and have really researched what they are investing in. The consumers that are clued up, it’s great they have an understanding of what they are investing in. My only advice would be to seek final advice from a qualified designer or installer.

Are you getting many queries about battery storage?

Yes, it’s becoming more and more talked about. You could be out socialising and when you start talking about what you do people end up asking about battery storage. Half the work inquiries I receive are about the financial viability of battery storage.

Are you satisfied with the industry standards?

I think the standards are great. They give a person good guidance into how to contribute to the longevity and integrity of the industry and the installation they leave behind. On the other hand the amount of people who work in the industry without any formal training or tested knowledge of the standards is concerning. You may have a skilled licensed person supervising five people who are learning on the job as they go. It would be great to see something like the NSW White Card for Health and Safety introduced to the solar industry. If you want to work in the industry you have something to prove you understand the industry standards. PV can burn a house or building down pretty quickly if installed the wrong way and a bad newspaper headline can turn the industry into a political football overnight.

What’s your biggest concern about the industry?

“Kilowatt madness.” Putting as many panels on a roof as possible at any cost, quantity before quality, sales half-truths and a race to the bottom with cheapest possible price offers.

Any advice for someone getting started in solar?

If you are interested in the industry get skilled up and get involved. Apart from TAFE I have completed a lot of my training through a registered training organisation called SkillBuild. They offer excellent training in facilities all over Australia.