Clean Energy Council technical support officer Thomas Seymour is part of a crew that keeps solar installers informed – and on their toes.
How did you end up in the tech team at the Clean Energy Council?
I did an apprenticeship in my early thirties; it’s been a second career for me. I did that mostly with commercial electrical contractors. When I finished the apprenticeship I went out on my own for about five years. I was doing solar and general electrical work but I fell off a mountain bike and broke my collarbone. That’s when I decided I needed a little bit of a change in direction – maybe get off the tools. Then the opportunity came up with the CEC.
OK, and what does the CEC tech team do?
The team is made up of people with full electrical qualifications. There are eight of us; seven are accredited solar installers, one is an electrical engineer with design and installation accreditations. We answer questions about installation compliance, Australian Standards, CEC guidelines. Installers can call anytime with technical questions. That’s one of the main functions. We also monitor incoming installers, who have to do a practical assessment, and we run a compliance program with regulators.
What’s an installer’s first contact with you guys?
Some will contact us before they’ve done an RTO [registered training organisation] course, to get the base units for accreditation. But a lot don’t contact us until they’ve done their RTO training, when they apply for accreditation. They submit all their electrical qualifications, their insurances and their RTO training certificate – then they have to do three online assessments to be given an accreditation number to be given provisional accreditation status. That’s when they’re required to complete an installation and submit photographs and documentation. We make a desktop audit of it.
Do you have to knock many people back?
Definitely. There are some we reject and don’t allow into the accreditation program. For most people it’s a case of working with them as opposed to being hard-line and just saying no. When you do your apprenticeship to be an electrician you study and work for four years, but to get a solar accreditation you do a one-week course and apply to do some online assessments. There are standards you need to get across to do solar competently. It’s quite a tricky industry to wrap your head around when you first start. We always try to put people back on the right path if they steer off-track.
How do you do that?
Most of the time it’s a case of working with them to iron out some kinks or bring to their attention things they’ve missed in their RTO training. Training is an expensive exercise to go through, so most of them take it pretty seriously.
Are you happy with the standard of RTO training?
Broadly it’s pretty good. There are definitely some organisations doing a superior job – and we see it in some of the people who come through. We’d like to see more of a feedback loop back to the RTOs. After pupils graduate the RTOs don’t really hear from them again. If there are things missing through their training, the RTOs won’t necessarily hear about it. We’d like to be able to flag with them fairly consistent non-compliances broadly but also non-compliances coming through with CEC course applications and practical assessments.
Can you give an example?
Exclusion zones and clamping zones; the physical mounting of PV modules on a roof is a common non-compliance. Inadequate support and protection of AC and DC cabling is something we see a lot of. The installation of DC isolators and DC switch combiner boxes and enclosures is often a problem. Voltage rise is a major issue for grid instability and mismatched DC connectors is another one.
Do you get any strange inquiries?
I recently got a call asking: how do I compliantly install pigeon mesh? That was an offbeat one.
How is non-compliant work reported to you?
Our primary source of non-compliance data is the Clean Energy Regulator. They conduct audits in tranches; they’re in the middle of a tranche at the moment of about 3,500 audits. Once they’ve done the onsite audit, completed the draft and had a right of reply period, that’s a final audit. That’s when it comes to us and we issue demerit points to the installer’s record and insure the installation is rectified – so all the non-compliance is fixed.
What happens when an installer starts getting in trouble with you?
If they’ve got a number of reports or one severe report we might ask them to do additional work, like an online assessment or submit a new practical assessment. The bulk of [non-compliant reports] is from misunderstanding. Most installers are happy to do the right thing; they don’t want to deal with non-compliance. A lot of the time it’s simply a case of not keeping up with changes in the industry. What you’ve got to remember is the solar industry moves way, way faster than the rest of the electrical industry. Technology is moving very rapidly, regulators are trying to catch up all the time and installers are trying to keep pace with that change. It’s incredibly difficult for them to constantly know exactly what they are meant to do.
Do you get the feeling installers are rushed off their feet?
Some installers are under the impression they don’t have any power in the situation. They feel they’re at the behest of all the regulators and the retailers they work for. We’ll often point out to them on the phone, you guys are the ones with the accreditation. You do hold the responsibility but you actually have a lot more power than you think you do. A retailer can’t exist without an installer. Under Australian consumer law you’re not allowed to sell something you can’t install. If they [retailers] don’t have an installer working for them, they can’t do anything. Whereas an installer can easily sell a system. We tell installers, you’ve got to value your worth and your accreditation. If they all realised they’ve got this power, they would stop working for peanuts for retailers.
That’s good to hear…
I don’t have a problem with the retail situation fundamentally. But the reality is the retailers sell for fixed prices and they compete on price, not quality. Then they drive the install price down and push the installers to install for less and less.
Are you taking many inquiries about storage?
Yes, it’s getting bigger and bigger. Our grid-connect battery storage applications have gone up by a huge amount.
Do you have any concerns about the standard of work?
One of the good things about grid-connect storage applications is they come from people who have been installing solar for quite a while. They’ve gone through a period of learning, with some mistakes along the way, and their work’s pretty clean after that. Then they go for grid-connect battery storage. It’s still pretty new. Time will tell. Fortunately, batteries have come into their own at a time when we’re getting more integrated product. It’s a better solution than people building their own systems out of parts.
What new tools is the tech team working on?
We’re working on the “Myjobs” project at the moment, which is a job tracking tool. We’ve been working on that for nearly two years. You can go on the app as an accredited person and record all the details of your job, the configuration, the products involved. It also has tools to assist working out string fusing, your fire emergency label and system performance estimate. We’re adding a commissioning sheet tool and voltage rise tool. We’re building it out so that it’s something installers can use to really keep track of their work and help them remain compliant. Should they have an audit, they can go back to a job record and prove what they did.
Sounds great. Last question: how did you break your collarbone?
I was riding a trail … I just wasn’t paying much attention!