The solar installation industry has never been this busy. As the technology becomes more complex and battery inquiries increase, the training sector is working hard to keep up.
Last year broke records for installers, with more solar PV capacity registered than any previous calendar year. In November 120MW of solar PV systems under 100kW was installed, beating the previous monthly record set in June 2012.
As power prices rise consumers are investing in their own generation. Sourcing electricity from rooftop systems is a great way to push back against the big utilities and distributors, some of whom seem to relish their monopoly status.
New owners of quality solar systems will see a difference straight away, as they are paid for surplus electricity exported to the grid and they adjust their power use to maximise self-consumption.
But the most important participants in the shift to solar are the installers, because if they get it wrong then it’s not hard for all the positive feeling about renewable energy to turn negative. The entire clean energy industry relies on installers. And that’s why training matters so much.
As more and more electricians decide they need the skills to take part in the transition to clean energy the registered training organisations (RTOs) that specialise in renewable energy have been busy.
“This might have been our strongest year since 2009 or 2010,” says Global Sustainable Energy Solutions (GSES) director of operations and engineering Chris Martell.
Martell credits the surge of interest to relative political stability around the Renewable Energy Target. “We just needed stability and then the economics of the industry just took care of itself,” he says. “We saw a massive influx of people trying to break into the market and the best way to do that is get your CEC accreditation – and you need training for that.”
At SkillBuild, an RTO with operations in most capitals, training co-ordinator Bill Gammon has seen “amazing” interest in grid-connect courses. “I call them the late adopters,” he says. “All these electricians who didn’t want to do solar have just decided this has to be part of their skill set.”
Got to keep up
A training organisation is only as relevant as the technology it has in its classroom for would-be installers to work with. That’s asking a lot in the world on solar and storage, where new products are coming to market all the time. “The industry moves faster than the nationally accredited training units,” says Martell. Some RTOs get around the problem by having a strong focus on continuing professional development (CPD) courses, and GSES is creating CPD courses in 2018 to give students a bit more insight on things they can expect to see in the year ahead.
The commercial and industrial sector is attracting installers’ attention as a strong growth spot and GSES is developing add-on courses to cover technical aspects of large systems not included in the standard units of competency. Martell says GSES courses can be adapted quickly to suit demand. “We go to the market and see what people want to learn and what they think is lacking,” he says. “Because we have a training side and a consulting side we are pretty well across what is going on.”
In late February GSES is planning to launch an online training platform called GSES+, which will cover CPD point renewal via training webinars and online quizzes, consulting and engineering credit, as well as marketing and technical support for electricians.
The hard part
Gammon at SkillBuild says there is a need for courses that go beyond the electrical work and focus on “the IT bit”, which can vary depending on the tech installed.
Tolliday at Holmesglen TAFE agrees. “The biggest problem with battery storage is it’s not the actual installation of the equipment; a lot of it’s the software and the communications installers are struggling with,” he says. Every product seems to have a different system of software and different ways of communicating – 4G, local wifi, hardwired to the local network, different protocols. “There’s a whole underlying knowledge that you need to get these things going properly.”
Although product support from manufacturers is generally good, he recommends students get to know a couple of brands back to front rather than attempt to know them all.
Manufacturers’ courses can be beneficial, Martell says, so long as when graduates go into the industry and set up relationships with suppliers they are careful to ensure the training is as good as the product. “To have one without the other is deeply remiss,” he says.
There have been rapid changes in inverter technology and product training is essential if installers want to stay on top, says Fronius lead application engineer Rod Dewar. Today, about 80% of a developer’s resources are dedicated to software and 20% to hardware, he says, which means installers and electricians are dealing with a lot more communications technologies.
“Being able to set up and understand communication between devices is crucial,” Dewar says. “These are complex technologies and this isn’t even considering the storage side of things.”
Clean Energy Council executive general manager installation integrity Sandy Atkins encourages installers to attend manufacturers’ training sessions because some of the systems are very technical. “But the problem we have through CPD is when we assess them for their points it’s a matter of making sure it is a technical training course and not a sales pitch,” he says.
Selectronic Australia has seen steady demand for its CPD events (which cost $300 but are rewarded with incentives including a three-year extension on its seven-year warranty). “A lot of it is to do with interest in the storage market at the moment,” says Selectronic business development manager Craig Hunter. “We don’t just talk about our products – it’s about knowledge sharing. We talk about the whole market and encourage the room to share their experiences, so everybody can learn from it.”
Hunter concedes some at the top end of the install industry carry the notion that CPD points are an “easy” way to attain and keep accreditation. If points were awarded based on inspections of installers’ work it would mean a lot more, they say. “But when it comes to the bulk of the market a lot of people like the CPD option because it’s easy and fits within time constraints,” he says.
People who are prepared to pay for a CPD course are doing medium to high-end work, he says. Installers who are doing the questionable work aren’t investing in training courses. “We don’t really get to see them.”
Not worth the risk
Standards count in solar because electricity is invisible and dangerous. Everyone puts their faith in electricians every day. The RTOs that train solar installers are also being watched over – and the Clean Energy Council is slowly applying greater scrutiny.
The CEC relies on the federal RTO process to develop units of competence but sits on technical advisory committees at national and state levels to make sure what RTOs offer is relevant.
When people come to the CEC to be accredited there is a process that shows they understand what they’ve been trained in, says Atkins. Having completed nationally recognised units of competency they then sit online tests, which is where the CEC can gauge if they’ve understood what they’ve learned.
The test data allows the CEC to check on the training industry. If graduates of all RTOs are performing badly in one part of the curriculum it could be an indication the units of competency need to be changed. If graduates of one RTO score below the average, it might mean that training organisation isn’t doing a great job.
“Previously this was all pretty blind to us,” Atkins says of the new system, which started in November last year. “With the online quiz and being able to gather this data we’re hoping we can have a much better relationship with the RTOs to ensure the training is actually delivering what the industry needs.”
The CEC is working on setting up a trainers’ reference group, similar to its installer reference group that meets once a month to discuss issues in the industry. It also keeps an eye on CPD programs, especially to make sure there is enough online content so installers in regional areas don’t have to travel too often (a common gripe when the CPD regime was introduced). About five CEC webinars are run a year, complete with an online quiz. Some installers still complain, however. In Tasmania and Queensland there isn’t any need to do CPD to keep an electrical licence, but the CEC maintains the industry is changing so quickly that installers should keep up with these things.
Atkins says the CEC’s plan over the next 12 months is to consider mandatory CPD units that cover major changes in the industry and elective CPD units. It hopes this will stop the occasional problem where installers claim they were never informed of changes to the standard when their systems fail an inspection. “By doing this mandatory CPD requirement I’m hoping we can catch that out,” Atkins says.
Installers can lose their accreditation if they’ve installed systems they haven’t been trained for, such as someone accredited for grid-connect installing an off-grid system. “To us that’s a major breach of accreditation,” he says. “It happens very rarely but we want to make sure our accreditation scheme is built around ensuing people have the right skills for doing the right type of solar.”
Poor installers can be caught out. The Clean Energy Regulator’s inspection program looks at a random sample of systems it claims will include about half the installer base each year. The CEC sees all the reports and demerit points are assigned for defects. Once demerits reach 20 points accreditation is suspended. The CEC looks at the breaches and points the guilty installer towards the best training to target the missing skills.
“Once they pass that training the suspension is lifted and away they go,” Atkins says. Demerit points last 24 months. The CEC also sees inspection reports from state electrical regulators, distribution businesses and consumers. Last financial year it suspended about 80 installers and issued around 4,500 demerit points.
Although it’s a busy industry it’s hard to make money, says Martell at GSES, as the price structure is “very low” and labour costs are squeezed. “People are looking to cut corners,” he says. “One of our goals is to figure out how to teach installers how to put more value into what they do.” As two examples, GSES offers CPD courses around operations and maintenance service packages and quality assurance monitoring. “You need a healthy margin to have a healthy industry,” says Martell, who thinks the problem of wafer-thin margins will fix itself. “I think we’re seeing a bit of a turnaround.”
In its consultancy arm GSES is working on micro grids and embedded networks, sophisticated systems Martell says are worth a premium. “There has to be more margin in it simply because there is more risk.”
Overall he sees the industry sailing smoothly ahead for the time being, regardless of the as-yet-ill-defined National Energy Guarantee. “Everyone is saying [the NEG] is a bolstering of coal, and that might happen, but I don’t think there’s that much of a risk,” he says. “Just look at what’s happening globally, where everyone is moving away from fossil fuels to renewables. I think we’re in a good spot.”
Gammon at SkillBuild thinks if subsidies were all removed – STCs and LGCs – it would shake out a lot of the lesser-quality practitioners in the market. “It would be a good idea,” he says. “All those third-party companies who are running this industry I suspect might go off and sell Ugg boots or Paddlepops or whatever. The money is in the incentives.”
Takes all sorts
It’s not just your regular electricians who are coming through the courses. Martell says students coming from the mining sector are very well qualified and eager to enter the field. He hopes they’ll return to regional areas to boost the numbers of electricians with CEC accreditation in far-flung parts of the country. “There needs to be better focus on regional centres,” he says. “It is needed out there. A lot of time what happens is companies come from urban centres, do bits of work out there and then leave. There is some resentment around that. If the trainers did a better job of making it easier to access training in those regional centres it could be beneficial.”
Tolliday at Holmesglen TAFE is running a course in the Latrobe Valley to upskill fossil-fuel energy workers into new careers and opening up courses for non-electrician system designers, as “a chance for people outside the industry to get in”.
The cost of storage has dropped, says Gammon at SkillBuild, but the battery market is still a place to be cautious. Sales tactics are pretty much at the forefront and installers are being lured to seminars and events which are really sales pitches. It’s fair to say there’s a bit of hype around batteries. “I sit in the Qantas Lounge and overhear people say they’re going to get a Tesla battery or my Uber driver tells me how good batteries are and I say, well, just be careful, maybe hang off a little bit,” Gammon says.
Payback times for storage may have dropped from 15 years to seven years, he says, but when the warranty on a battery is seven years it only means the unit has been paid off at the end of its life, rather than saved the owner money. “I’m a little bit more critical about some of that stuff, even though we’re in the business of helping people to develop their businesses to go and install them,” he says. “There are so many people out there just selling product.”
A lot of people are hoping the battery hype is real. “It’s all batteries, batteries, batteries – that’s all they want to know about,” says Tolliday at Holmesglen TAFE. But to do battery storage training you have to do grid-connect training, so Tolliday has doubled the number of grid-connect courses on offer to keep everyone happy.
A battery makes a lot more sense if you’re on the fringes of the grid, of course, and Townsville-based Electro-Training Institute director Jeff McRobb says interest is starting to ramp up in his part of the world. Electro-Training is moving into hybrid systems this year to meet demand for consumers who are going off-grid. Around Townsville, a stand-alone system is about “a fifth of the price” of being connected to the local network, McRobb says.
Most of the students he sees are sent along by employers. “The employer puts himself through first and obviously they’re happy because then the workers do the course.”
Training standards are important for the sake of the industry and Tolliday says training organisations that are not registered are no substitute for proper structured training. “Electricians don’t always do the research into where they’re going for training,” he says. “The quality of instructors Australia-wide leaves a lot to be desired.”
He’s heard plenty of students complain about courses that haven’t delivered the goods. “They look at the price but don’t look at the equipment or what they’re going to learn. People who go for the cheapest price on anything normally get caught out unfortunately.”
Accreditation is required by the Clean Energy Regulator to generate Small-scale Technology Certificates. Legally, however, any electrician can install solar. “At the end of the day we need properly trained people to do the job right,” Tolliday says. “But there are still a lot of guys who are cowboys.”
As enrolments at RTOs increase some trainers report they still have the same grinding concerns about students. Gammon has had people turn up to courses who are working as installers but have had no training at all. “I’m absolutely amazed,” he says. “First of all they don’t realise legally how they expose themselves; and secondly the perception that ‘this is just electrical work and I’m an electrician and I can do it’ is fanciful. This is specialised work.”
An RTO that takes a lax attitude to the quality of its training will only find itself in the firing line if the work of one of its graduates is dangerously bad.
There are still plenty of installers out there with no qualifications at all. “It beggars belief that employers would think that’s alright,” says Gammon. “We’re talking about two grand and four days’ training … seriously, it’s a really good investment – if they do it with us or anyone else.”
The RTOs are growing with the industry. GSES is looking to create a permanent training centre in Brisbane to free up its mobile training centre for work around Queensland, and Townsville-based Electro-Training has bought an industrial property in Brisbane where it will offer solar, battery and small-scale wind training. SkillBuild runs centres in Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Darwin but has closed its Perth operation.
Last year GSES says it processed about 1,230 students, SkillBuild claims about 750 for standalone grid-connect and battery storage, Holmesglen TAFE more than 200 and Electro-Training about 500.
This year a slew more installers will climb onto the nation’s rooftops to solve our energy woes. The technology may test them, but if the RTOs are doing their work right then everyone will be up to the task. “The industry’s in a good place,” says Atkins at the CEC. “We’re not lacking skills in terms of accredited people and trained people.”