The solar sector – utility-scale and rooftop systems big and small – will see steady growth for at least the next two decades as coal is replaced. The institutions that train PV installers will be busier and more scrutinised than ever, writes Jeremy Chunn.

Australian solar installers might sometimes feel as though they simply could not squeeze any more work into their diaries but the fact is that the energy system is demanding huge additional amounts of PV to be connected to the grid over the next 20 years as coal plants are retired.

The vocational education and training sector will have a busy couple of decades ahead of it as electricians take on the skills required to fit the equipment that can turn sunlight into electricity and the installers already serving the industry stay on top of new technology and techniques.

Registered training organisations and vocational education centres that turn out the country’s PV professionals are heading into a new growth phase. One side-effect of change is that they will be watched more sharply by regulators.

The solar courses offered around the country are based on material created within the Australian Skills Quality Authority and must comply with Australian Standards. Solar is a fast-moving technology, however, especially battery storage systems, and educators sometimes grumble that the material they are provided with can be a bit out of date.

For example, updates by the Australian Industry Standards last year to the entire electro technology training package did not include much of a focus on renewable energy, says Elizabeth Joannou at GSES. She had hoped the material for stand-alone power systems in particular would have been given some much-needed attention.

Connecting the dots at Queensland TAFE.

The gatekeeper

Because the clean energy revolution is happening on suburban rooftops as much as it is at far-away utility-scale solar and wind plants, the Clean Energy Council is determined to minimise the risk that anything can go wrong. To ensure workforce issues don’t become a barrier to industry growth, the CEC in 2020 created a skills and training directorate that includes members from RTOs and employers to talk about training issues and “identify areas where we can raise the bar,” says CEC director of workforce development Anita Talberg.

The CEC is planning working groups for trainers from all the RTOs to go over issues picked up in the council’s assessment of the industry gained through audits of rooftop systems and “confusion in the industry”.

“There is a misalignment between what the VET sector is offering and what our employers need,” Talberg says. “We would like to see a system where there is a much more responsive VET sector. We would like a more nimble VET sector that can be responsive to our needs.

“The problem is, changing those packages is a three-to-five-year process.”

Talberg also sits on industry reference committees that oversee training units in power generation and transmission. The reference committees allow for feedback from the renewable energy sector to the vocational education and training sector, “if training products are not meeting the needs of employers”.

“A technical advisory committee will go through line by line the curriculum and decide if units of competency are doing what they say they’re supposed to be doing, and if what they say they’re supposed to be doing is what the industry needs,” Talberg says.

Issues raised within the CEC’s skills and training directorate are also worthy of being aired with industry reference committees, she says.

Nationally endorsed training is a prerequisite for CEC accreditation. Continuing professional development programs are also being revamped, she says, with training units categorised as core and non-core material so that installers must maintain a robust knowledge base.

Getting the message across at the Solar Training Centre.

Victoria gets ready

As Victoria has chosen to go it alone in its pursuit of clean energy capacity so it has determined to pay vigilant attention to training.  Because Victoria has its own regulatory body for developing curricula, the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, the state hopes it is quicker to respond with changes in teaching units.

“With the national curriculum being a bit outdated, in Victoria over the past few years we’ve taken the opportunity for Victorian Skills Commissioners industry advisory group and industry steering committee to develop new curriculum,” says Alex Newman, the executive officer of Future Energy Skills, facilitator of the industry advisory group.

Victoria has declared to source half its electricity from renewables by 2030 and is forthright in its support of rooftop solar with its Solar Homes Program. “To support those programs the curriculum needs to be the most current it can be,” Newman says. Through the Victorian Skills Commissioner, Future Energy Skills has developed and then accredited three courses so far, to support residential and large-scale solar: Working Safely in Solar (with an emphasis on working at heights); New Energy Technology Systems (focused on PV system design, batteries and stand-alone systems), and; grid-connected systems between 30-100kVA (to target commercial PV and storage).

National RTOs have the option of adopting the courses, he says, but Working Safely in Solar is mandatory for installers working in Victoria on projects aligned with the Solar Homes Program.

The updates have been about two years in the making, Newman says. “Finding subject matter experts in this field and developing learning resources has been difficult, but that’s one of the reasons why it’s being funded, so the RTOs can find it a lot easier to deliver these courses,” he says.

There are about 12-15 people training installers around the country, on Newman’s estimate, “and reskilling for the clean energy economy is going to be a much bigger task than that. If we can develop good learning resources that support current curriculum then it makes it easier for people to make the transition from industry to the classroom to deliver these courses in the way industry needs for the future.”

Students at the GSES facility in Sydney.

And along came covid

The transition to clean energy might seem inevitable but there will always be unexpected ructions. The covid-19 pandemic was a classic example of a collision no-one was expecting. For solar trainers around the country, it was a chance to quickly adapt.

“The covid year has presented us with significant opportunities,” says Solar Training Centre CEO Steve Kostoff. Online Zoom classes replaced the classroom format for much of the theory presented in Solar Training Centre courses, Kostoff says, with practical work still being managed in person. “Our online classes were driven by a full production team in conjunction with the trainers to deliver a very compliant and relevant learning experience.”

It’s been a strong year at Solar Training Centre and the RTO is preparing to expand its offering in Victoria for the next year and beyond, says Kostoff, who sits on the board of Solar Homes Victoria. The RTO operates in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Northern Territory.

With a career in PV appealing to the entrepreneurial streak in many electricians Kostoff says solar sales and marketing courses are a natural fit. “It’s not just about installers,” he says. “The market is asking for further training for personnel in sales and marketing divisions, management and training in solar. This is how the industry is responding to what we do but also driving what we do.”

Kostoff sees strong growth in the solar install sector. “Every week the market asks me to refer qualified and CEC-accredited installers because there is so much work across Australia,” he says. “There should not be any qualified installer out of work today.”

Fresh talent

At GSES, Joannou says she has noticed a large proportion of turnover in the industry. “The number of accredited installers is still increasing dramatically but at a lower rate than we are training up new people, us and the other RTOs,” she says.

This could indicate that installers are exiting the industry, to be replaced by those nearing the end of their apprenticeships and mature electricians who have added solar to their offering. “More and more, solar is being seen by the public as a standard offering,” Joannou says. “There is an expectation they can provide it as an additional service.”

Every schoolkid comes to class with a different attitude to learning and professional or vocational training is no different: there are those who are simply happy to pass and others who seek to get as much out of classwork as they can. “They’re the ones who stay back after class or turn up to optional online sessions,” Joannou says. “There are definitely different types of students, but you get apprentices and experienced electricians in both categories.”

PV and grid-connect courses generally cover the same ground: how a PV module works, matching an array to an inverter, site assessments and installation, etc. The technology is always changing, however, and so are the standards. “It’s a constant job for us to update our course material,” Joannou says, as students pay fees with the expectation they’ll learn to work with the latest gear.

The big shift in interest has been to modules with half-cut cells, whereas most of the traditional course material focuses on standard modules. It’s a case of rewriting the class notes once again. “Every week, it seems, we are finding out about a new technology or new consideration we need to add to our courses.” The Australian Energy Market Operator’s Distributed Energy Resource Register is another addition to the curriculum, along with major updates to the Australian Standards and how they should be interpreted.

Trainers who work in the industry and who learn from inspections are well-placed to pass along wisdom to students, especially if they’ve learned a few things the hard way. The RTOs also get to hear about PV installation issues raised with the Clean Energy Regulator via the Clean Energy Council. If the CER is hearing common complaints about PV work in the field it will prompt the CEC to let the RTOs know where course content could be improved.

Investigation by the Clean Energy Council’s Skills and Training Directorate found some courses are not teaching everything that they need to and common problems found at inspections highlight common misconceptions among installers. These observations could guide the development of future units of competency. The CEC directorate includes manufacturers, academics and trainers. “It’s looking to the future of what training needs to look like for the whole industry,” Joannou says.

Minutes for an October meeting of the Clean Energy Council’s Skills and Training Directorate noted large variation in the quality of delivery from RTOs and suggested a code of conduct might be a way to standardise the skills expectation for licensed electricians across the industry.

As installers push further into bigger and bigger solar work they may have to adapt to technology they’d never considered at the outset. GSES is adept at writing specialised streams and its offering now includes a course in tracking systems and solar hot water. New courses are coming in volt current in PV systems, detailed cable sizing and arc flash effects, among others in the pipeline.

Lindsay Hart of Selectronic takes a class at Queensland TAFE.

New business skills

Regardless of covid-19 putting a hammer through work schedules in Victoria in the second half of 2020 Holmesglen TAFE senior training coordinator David Tolliday says it was still a busy year at the Renewable Energy Centre of Excellence at the Moorabbin campus. “There is a huge demand at the moment for grid-connected electricians,” Tolliday says. “They are finding it’s a good industry to get into and have in their resume.” Graduates are finding work mainly in residential and small commercial work, around 100-200kW, he says.

Before his students head out into the world with newly minted skills Tolliday also offers practical business advice about choosing suppliers. “I always tell them to buy products that have an Australian office and Australian support,” he says. Manufacturers also offer training, much of it very useful, “but I think too often it’s a sales-orientated high-level training,” he says. “It’s beneficial if the installers are using that product but the skills learned are not really interchangeable with other products in general. There is a use for it, but installers need to be a little bit careful and they do need the formal qualifications as well.”

The solar industry is booming but there are still too few suitably qualified and experienced trainers, Tolliday says. “There is a shortage,” he says.

Queensland TAFE has been running courses to get the state’s electricians up to CEC accreditation standard since the 1990s, says TAFE Queensland SkillsTech teacher renewable energy Richard Cary.

Clean energy goes far wider than solar, and Cary is also part of a team looking at how the vocational education provider can include courses in hydrogen, electric vehicles, EV charging and large-scale solar and wind. “Previously our solar area had focused on small-scale solar, residential and commercial, but we want to see what broader offering we can bring,” Cary says.

The Queensland Labor government has set a target of 50% renewable energy by 2030, and the clock is ticking. Coal and gas dominate the grid, with wind and solar making about 2.4GW of the near-15GW supply. The pipeline for large-scale solar and wind projects is enormous, however. Solar installers working on suburban rooftops may soon find themselves working on plants in the hundreds of megawatts.

Cary says about three-quarters of students who graduate from grid-connect courses go on to do units in design. Demand for storage training is still low, he says. “At some point that’s probably going to increase pretty rapidly,” he says, pointing to falling feed-in tariffs inevitably firing consumer interest in batteries. “We’re pretty much at the tipping point. As battery prices drop it’s going to become an economic decision. When people are not being paid well for their excess solar generation they are going to turn to batteries.”

Like the other RTOs, SkillBuild Training had to adapt to covid-19 restrictions by offering the theory component of courses online and practical activity in class. You have to do what you can in a pandemic, but SkillBuild training co-ordinator Bill Gammon sounds as though he prefers face-to-face instruction. “You miss the nuances when you’re doing Zoom that can easily spot in a class,” he says, “like when someone’s looking a bit puzzled or like they’re struggling.”

Students who have to travel to attend training have saved money on accommodation with the four-day online and one-day face-to-face format.

Positives and negatives

The switch to a partly-online delivery didn’t stop student numbers increasing over the year, and Gammon suspects some of the newbies may have taken the opportunity to study after a sharp downturn in the economy freed up work hours. The grid-connect course is most popular choice at SkillBuild, with battery storage attracting about a third as much interest. In 2020 Gammon says the stand-alone system course drew attention following a move by NSW network Essential Energy to adopt a model where containerised PV-and-battery energy solutions can be deployed as off-grid power stations in areas affected by bushfires and other natural disasters. “It’s a risk-averse measure,” he says. “If a line comes down in the summer in a paddock it can start a fire.”

West Australian network Horizon Power has used stand-alone power systems to replace 50-odd kilometres of powerlines in the state.

Despite the hype around batteries Gammon says enrolments in storage courses are fairly low. His advice to anyone considering battery training is to wait until there is a job request to respond to. He suspects some of the students enrolled in storage training are already installing the technology. Because there are no Small-scale Technology Certificates attached to batteries, there is no paperwork. There is, however, a new Australian Standard on battery energy storage systems – 5139 – and installers had better comply with it.

Gammon commends the CEC for its new commissioning sheet and solar installation guidelines, adapted from the Australian Standards.

Solar is a mature technology, with paybacks sometimes around three years. The Clean Energy Regulator’s STC program is timed to expire in 2030 but the subsidy rug could be pulled out from under the industry well before then. If that happens, the large retailers who use hard sales pitches could soon disappear. Business conditions could improve for quality installers of quality systems. Without the requirements of STCs, however, they may not have to be accredited by the CEC.

It’s only a theory – but anything can happen in solar.