The solar PV training sector has a weight on its shoulders turning out installers fit to convert the country to clean energy, but as the battery surge approaches the stakes are higher.

Solar installers are the front line of an industry under intense scrutiny. If they do the job well, customers will be happy. If they don’t, the entire renewable energy industry will be to blame.

And if predictions of strong demand for battery storage turn out to be accurate, all it will take is one or two fires and all solar installers will bear the brunt of a whiplash of negative sentiment.

That’s why training is so important.

In 2007 just over 3,000 solar PV systems were installed nationwide. In 2011, 360,000 systems were installed. “Our industry in four years went through a hundredfold increase,” says Clean Energy Council accreditation manager Sandy Atkins. “Any time an industry grows that quickly there are always going to be issues that were not foreseen.”

Over that time industry standards took seven years to update, Atkins says, but solar install courses and CPD programs were updated fairly fluidly.

As uptake of batteries enters an exponential growth phase, training and accreditation guidelines may need to be adapted quickly. “We are concerned about batteries and consumers understanding them,” Atkins says.

On the job

When it comes to training, it’s important to choose a facility where course content is based on industry experience, says SkillBuild director Bill Gammon (pictured below). “We’re practitioners,” Gammon says. “All of our trainers tend to be experts in their field.” He lists CEC compliance officer Luke Pickles, Selectronic electronic engineer Rob Moss and Alice Springs-based installer Mark Schild as SkillBuild trainers who are clocking up professional practical experience in their day jobs.

SkillBuild trainees are expected to design and put together a real installation and prepare quotes. “We make it work-like,” he says. “And that’s why they appreciate it.” Trainees will also pay more for a SkillBuild course because Gammon insists on graduates having the Stand Alone Safety and Design Standard (AS4509), which adds about $400 to the cost. “Having said that, all the courses are full,” he says.

The school runs two storage courses a month, with 10-12 students, and grid-connect courses, where there has been a surge in interest from electricians who have realised they have to have grid-connect if they want storage training – and they really, really want storage training. The trainer is busy in South Australia, Gammon says, as installers respond to the locals’ insecurities about relying on the grid.

Any registered training organisation, or RTO, must map courses against units of confidence for any education it offers. “As long as you are meeting the units as they are written you can teach it any way you want,” says GSES director of operations and engineering Chris Martell, explaining the RTO system. “You just have to prove you have those learning outcomes as per the defined units.”

The units of competence were developed by an industry reference group three years ago and left in draft stage. The reference group was amalgamated with another group in that time and the approval of the units was delayed, but they should be signed off by early 2017, Martell says. In the meantime the CEC has approved the units and will accredit any courses mapped to the units, “and our course is,” Martell says.

GSES offers grid-connect units, with three units of competence, and grid-connect with energy storage, with two units of competence.

The solar industry is fast-changing, especially battery storage. The only thing everyone agrees on is that prices will come down and some of today’s technology will struggle to make the finish line in a competitive field. That makes the task of educators “complicated,” Martell (pictured) says.

He also cites Australian Standard 4777, which dictates how inverters connect to the grid and the requirements for all inverters on the market, as a rule that keeps him on his feet. When the standard changes, “we’ll have to upgrade our entire practical facility,” he says. “We’re constantly updating.”

Electro-Training Institute director Jeff McRobb knows it’s important to update the curriculum as trends change. “We adapt by working in the industry and liaising with stakeholders that are also working in the industry by doing site inspections of their installs,” says McRobb, who also keeps tabs with wholesale suppliers and attends conferences and exhibitions around Australia.

Charge ahead

David Tolliday, the senior renewable energy instructor at Holmesglen TAFE in Moorabbin, Victoria, has been in the solar training game 10 years and deals mainly with electricians keen on gaining new skills to earn accreditation and start installing PV systems.

“We had a big influx of grid-connect PV guys a couple of years ago and we’re basically at saturation point there,” Tolliday says, with about 4,000 accredited installers out and about. Now they’re all coming back to be trained on grid-connect with battery storage. At TAFEs across Australia that means three days’ classwork on top of grid-connect. “That’s where the major focus of training is at the moment.”

Storage is far from basic. It’s a lot to cram into three days of practical workshop-based study, and Tolliday says a boost to funding will see a bunch of new equipment in 2017. Classes include lithium ion and lead acid technology, with Ecoult, Samsung and Enphase technology on the shopping list.

Students build systems, link them to a monitor and return after a week or so to see how they performed.

About eight to 10 cycles of no more than 12 students are accepted a year. “As demand takes off we do it more often,” he says.

Safety is a major drill for the storage component: batteries can catch fire and they are heavy. There are also conflicting messages around what type of storage is appropriate, and what size. This will become obvious as feed-in tariffs come to an end. “People are not going to size systems to export,” Tolliday says. “You size them for self-consumption or you size them for self-consumption and charge the batteries [from the grid] to use overnight. That’s what the designer and installer have to understand.”

The install is the easy part, he says. Knowing the different types is something else. Lead-acid can’t be totally discharged or recharged, “otherwise you’ll wreck them”; short warranties on lithium ion batteries may be an indication the technology is immature. “If you don’t look after batteries they don’t last very long,” he says. With an average PV-and-storage system costing $15,000, “you don’t get the payback”. Off-grid systems are totally different, with storage of up to four days’ energy required.

Are you experienced

At SkillBuild, Gammon’s had plenty of opportunities to observe graduates of other courses as they pass through his institution. “There is a bit of concern [about work experience],” he says. “I think, hang on, they didn’t actually do any practical work.” He says he is wary of institutions that offer unaccredited training. “In terms of training you don’t want electricians sitting next to non-electricians who have had no experience.” His advice is to be wary to not confuse accredited training with “general interest” non-accredited training.

When it comes to storage Gammon emphasises the importance of robust, rigorous training with the reminder that batteries catch fire. An installer who doesn’t understand charging rates in batteries may be putting property and lives in danger. “There will be fires, it’s as simple as that. We’ve got to be really careful about these fellas doing the right thing.”

As for a surge in demand for residential storage, Gammon’s not so sure. “There’s a lot of hype out there,” he says, underlined by commercial interests. “I don’t think there are going to be full courses everywhere.”

SkillBuild runs training centres in Alexandria, Sydney, further north in Tweed Heads, NSW, and in Albury, on the border with Victoria. “Albury is our busiest centre,” he says. “Funnily enough, people fly from all over the country to Albury.” Courses are also offered in Adelaide, Perth and Darwin.

Ethics is addressed with what Gammon calls the “Mum test”, by asking trainees to consider how they would expect an installer to sell to their own mother. Graduates must sign up to the Clean Energy Council’s code of conduct.

Measure up

The Clean Energy Council’s accreditation scheme is voluntary, of course, and there are plenty of installers who are not accredited. (The CEC provides accreditation to tradespeople, not companies.)

“It was set up before the days of on-grid PV,” Atkins says. Parts of the off-grid world at that time were outside electrical regulations, but after a few wayward incidents Queensland put its foot down and became the first state to hint at regulations. It was time for the industry to establish an accreditation scheme, with associated training, so at least there was a minimum of standards for the off-grid market. “Over time that has evolved into the same for on-grid,” Atkins says.

All on-grid solar PV installers must be electricians, but solar is a very small part of the electrical industry. “There are different risks associated with working with solar,” Atkins says. “We feel there is a need for people to have additional training above and beyond what they’ve done in their apprenticeship – and that’s where our accreditation comes into it.”

To be accredited with the CEC, an installer must have been issued a certificate of competency by an RTO.

Accreditation includes a three-month “provisional” period, during which time an installation must be completed and a case study submitted to the CEC for assessment. For the CEC, this is the evidence it needs to know not only that the RTO is turning out competent graduates but that the installer knows what he or she is doing.

Next comes the requirement for continuous professional development, where 100 points of training are required before accreditation can be renewed each year. The full 100 points, however, do not have to be taken through RTOs, but can be gained through courses offered by manufacturers.

“Throughout the year they need to ensure they are keeping their skills up to date, otherwise they can’t renew,” Atkins says.

Selectronic began training courses in 2008 after it launched the SP PRO inverter, which can be adapted to on- or off-grid, single-, dual- or three-phase and in residential, commercial or industrial applications. A one-day CEC-registered course covers system integration, installation and field servicing and is worth 35 CPD points. An extra 50 points are on offer to those who pass an in-house exam in south-east Melbourne. Another incentive is that only Selectronic Accredited Installers can pass the full 10-year warranty on an SP PRO on to customers. There are nearly 500 Selectronic Accredited Installers in Australia and New Zealand.

CPD points can also be struck off if an installer has slipped below industry best standards throughout the year depending on the severity of the breaches. Accreditation is suspended if 20 points are lost within two years, only to be renewed on the completion of more training to gain proof of competency. “If they get suspended three times then we cancel their accreditation,” Atkins says.

Suspension also would mean the end of entitlement to small-scale generation certificates, as installers and system designers must be accredited by the CEC to be eligible for certificates.

The CEC offers four types of accreditation: on-grid installation, on-grid system design, standalone installation and standalone system design.

A full class

At TAFE, Tolliday is working towards scaling up the courses for a surge in demand he feels is just around the corner. “In the next two years there is going to be huge demand,” he says. He’s planning for more classes, not bigger classes. “Always keep them small. I want them to get their hands dirty.”

Is teaching solar install skills a good job? “I love it,” Tolliday says. “The sad reality is, you think you’re doing the right thing but if you read the newspapers [which say] renewables are bad and there’s no such thing as climate change, you kind of go: why can’t they just be nice about it?”

New trainees are a varied bunch, says Martell at GSES, and recent numbers have included many former mining sector workers. There is also a regular feed of electricians with solar experience but no accreditation. The CEC’s list of accredited personal grew by 21% in 2016. “The industry is quite healthy,” Martell says, especially in commercial-industrial and utility-scale.

Still, the industry had some dark spots. One estimate is there are about 600 installers who last year went out of business, or had their licence cancelled or are working without a licence. Ask around and you’ll hear plenty of stories of decent installers being called in to overhaul or replace the work of lousy installers. Consumers who commission a job without running a reasonable level of due diligence are skating on thin ice.

Martell says he doesn’t see ropey installers in his courses because they are scared off by the commitment of up to 120 hours’ of online work and an “intensive” three-day face-to-face practical component. “People who want to do a quick and dirty course don’t come to us,” he says.

GSES offers nationally recognised courses in grid-connect PV systems and grid-connect PV systems with batteries as pathways to accreditation with the Clean Energy Council.

Never stop learning

Storage is growing fast but is sometimes misunderstood. A student may look at the revenue opportunities but standards, regulations and risk around batteries is complicated. “That’s where the CPD [continuing professional development] courses come into play,” Martell says. GSES’s full-day face-to-face CPD courses on storage will end with a session where instructors seek feedback from local installers on issues and problems, “and then we design another set of courses around those questions”. All three of GSES’s CPD courses in 2016 were about batteries.

Martell sees growth in commercial-industrial and utility-scale solar, with residential remaining fairly flat, so CPD courses have adapted by including training on the tendering process. Modules can also be adapted to include quality assurance management programs. “If there is a lot of interest in moving into a different segment of the market then we try to help people do that.” The door is open for power purchase agreements to become part of the curriculum, he says.

Regardless of solar having stout credentials among environmentalists, most trainees are attracted to the courses for commercial reasons, Martell says. “That’s a good thing because it shows that the industry is maturing.”

It’s a good time to be in the training game. The transition to renewable energy has become a mainstream concern, and when there is change there is opportunity, Martell says. “We’re right in the thick of it.”

GSES also offers training in the Pacific Islands, South-East Asia and Africa, where it sees installers as the frontline of the industry. Training is also offered in Sydney and Bowen Hills in Queensland, with a mobile training unit also operating in the state. It will be launching the GSES Support Network in 2017, which includes webinars that award CPD points and on-site technical support for an annual fee.

Risky business

The next big wave is batteries, Atkins says, and the CEC has endorsed training modules which are waiting to be ratified through the RTO certification of training course process. “We strongly believe to do any form of on-grid storage you need to do that training,” Atkins says. But there are concerns, he says. Because some of the batteries available are less than 120 volts DC, they fall out of the safety regulator’s space. This means no-one is required to enforce additional training, he says.

“Batteries have additional risks above and beyond the risks associated with PV … and if people haven’t got the appropriate training it’s only going to take one incident for not only the battery industry but the renewables industry more broadly to be tarred.”

Because the government doesn’t offer subsidies for batteries, there is no “hook” to lure installers to do additional training. Anyone tempted to sidestep training about storage may be putting an entire industry at risk, “which is a major concern,” Atkins says. “That’s a huge risk to us.”

The CEC is aware of training on storage systems which is not offered by RTOs.

“Because there is no government incentive there is less information out there,” he says.

The CEC’s previous incarnation, the Business Council of Sustainable Energy, did a lot of work formulating the training modules and putting the units of competencies on the national register. “The national training packages are very important to us,” says Atkins. “We use that as one of our first checks of the competencies of installers.”