Global Sustainable Energy Solutions director of operations and engineering Chris Martell swapped techie defence work in the US for a clean start in Australia’s booming PV industry.

Chris, thanks for joining us at EcoGeneration Towers. First of all, how did you get into solar?

When I got out of uni I got a job at Raytheon, a defence contractor based in the US, on a long-range radar project that used gallium arsenide radiated elements–

I beg your pardon?

They call it digital receiver exciter elements; it sends out the electromagnetic radiation and whatever it bounces off it receives – that’s the heart and soul of a radar.

Ah, OK, trying to follow… and then?

I had no idea why gallium arsenide was important, so I started doing my own research. That led me down the path of extra-terrestrial solar cells, where gallium arsenide is used for satellite-based solar cells. I got really interested in solar cells. [To cut a long story short, Martell took on a masters in photovoltaics at the University of NSW and decided to stay put in Australia.] …and I’ve been working in solar ever since.

We know you’re a consultant and system designer at GSES but have you ever worked on rooftops installing PV?

I’ve worked on the roof as a labourer a few times but never as an electrician. My first job was as a travelling salesperson for solar systems. When I moved to [C&I installer] Solgen as a system designer I was working directly with the installer group, the operations manager and lead electrician.

Having worked at a large installer like Solgen what would you say to owners of smaller firms?

The relationship between the designers and installers is critical. The installer will know a lot of the practical information – is there a firewall, do you have to core-hole through concrete – and the designer with have a really good idea of how to find efficiencies and optimise the system from a performance and cost perspective.

A lot of the times if an installer is on site without a good plan they’ll do whatever is easiest or most effective from their perspective, but that might not be the most cost-effective or efficient system. The best case is when installers and designers work together – you get a really good feedback loop in place. Over time, you know the feedback you will bet from the installation team and they know the design they will get. Everyone’s on the same page at that point.

Do you have advice for owners of solar firms who want to break into C&I?

It is a different ballgame. Once you’re getting over 30kW there are new considerations; over 100kW there are other considerations; if you’re in the multi-hundreds or small-megawatt scale or you’re dealing with HV connections a lot of the networks will require load flow analysis or additional studies. Cable sizing also becomes a little more complicated with temperature derating. If you’re going from residential to medium-to-larger-scale C&I, you can run into these problems without ever being aware of them.

On the face of it it’s just the same system but bigger, but the risk profile is different and the customer’s knowledge of the system is greater. There is a much higher level of due diligence that needs to be done. If you’re going to make that foray into C&I you might want to do it with a consultant in the first instance.

Are there any parts of the solar industry that concern you?

If you step back, I think we’re heading in the right direction and we’ve been heading in the right direction for a long time now. It’s pretty exciting to see where we’re at now, even looking back five or six years.

In the short term there are still some concerns. There are still companies that are buying jobs, which I can’t believe is still happening. There are groups that are cutting corners and then they reinvent their business and come back under a different name and still have the problems associated with them. It’s happening less and less and over the medium to long term I’m not worried about that.

I think the solar industry is doing really well and it’s really well regulated. A decent percentage of solar installs are audited, so we’re getting good technical feedback. You have an accreditation scheme which is tied to an auditing scheme, and that’s made our industry better and better over time. The future is really bright for our industry. I think we’re just getting started.

What do you have to say about the solar training industry?

I know the Clean Energy Council is looking at this. The units of confidence governed by the Australian Skills Quality Authority are quite old. The grid-connect ones aren’t so bad because they’re fundamentally relevant but they miss a lot of the skills you require once you get into the field. We’re creating some short courses [at GSES] to directly address those skills gaps, in particular the stand-alone power systems skillset. The current skillset and the standard don’t really address lithium batteries – and when you go out into the field that’s basically all you’re using these days. That’s how old they are.

What do you have to say about manufacturers’ influence in the industry?

I think we need to do a better job with people who are designing and installing these systems. We do get a lot of influence from manufacturers. You can see it in the standard; 5033 has clauses that talk about DC optimisers and microinverters. It’s important they’re in there, because it’s different technology, but you can see that influence. You have to be careful about having that influence being too much. It should be counterweighted with designers and installers that actually have to work with these things. I don’t think we’ve done a great job with having installers incorporated in standards committees and technical reference groups for skills development. The keyword is balance.

What do you have to say about manufacturers offering training that includes CPD points?

It is a problem. It’s continuous professional development, so whatever those activities are they should be benefiting your business or your installations or designs – and you can definitely get points that don’t benefit those activities. And it’s part of the accreditation scheme, so it needs to be fixed. But I am aware the CEC is fixing it.

Overall, then, the solar industry is in good shape?

I know there are some problems with utility-scale, with MLFs and issues with people trading in the wholesale market, but everything is otherwise going in the right direction. We’re building renewable energy zones, building a lot more storage. There is a massive untapped market in the C&I space and in residential about 25% of rooves are covered, which means there is still a majority of rooves to cover. We are in the early days. It’s been exciting for a few years and it’s going to remain exciting.

After a busy few years do you have the energy to carry on?

Absolutely. I came from the defence space. It’s very easy to be passionate about renewable energy. You feel like you can earn a living but also do something that’s contributing positively to our society. I think that’s why most people in this industry are in it.