In 2018, Australia reached a milestone in that two million homes across the country now have solar PV installed on their rooftops making it the largest uptake in the world. EcoGeneration speaks to three of Australia’s trainers from the top registered training organisations about why it’s so important to keep upskilling as technology keeps changing. Kylie Field reports.

Queensland continues to lead the nation in rooftop solar, with four of the nation’s top five solar postcodes hailing from the Sunshine State. Bundaberg in central Queensland topped the list for the highest number of households with solar power, followed by Mandurah in Western Australia, then three other Queensland locations: Hervey Bay, Caloundra and Toowoomba.

According to the CEC, homes with rooftop solar installed are saving on average of about $540 per year on their electricity bills which suggests solar is a clear way for consumers to take control of their power consumption and cut costs.

“An average of six panels per minute are being installed in Australia, with the Australian Energy Market Operator estimating an average of 10-20 panels per minute if large-scale solar projects are factored in,” said CEC chief executive officer Kane Thornton adding that installing solar is a big decision.

It’s an investment for the long-term and one that requires careful consideration and research by the homeowner to ensure the system is right for the home. But the other most important factor is choosing the right installer because if they get it wrong not only is it costly, it can be dangerous.

So as sparkies make the move into renewables what’s involved with training and what are the standards governing training in the sector?

Job well done

Holmesglen Institute senior training coordinator (renewable energy training programs) David Tolliday says training for solar installers is so important because being properly trained and accredited means the job gets done right thereby reducing potential problems like call-backs, systems not functioning as they should be  or possible electrical shock or fires.

“It’s all OK until something goes wrong then the installer will be asked where did you get your training and insurance may not cover the installer if they have not been trained by an RTO. Think of it as risk management for your business, reducing the risk of ending up in court and losing your house,” said Tolliday.

“RTO’s are governed by the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA). RTO’s deliver according to units of competency and the rules of assessment and must follow strict compliance guidelines. “

Tolliday suggests when considering an RTO for training, an installer should base their choice not only on price but ask questions like who is the trainer. Is the trainer’s knowledge up-to-date? How much and what equipment do you have? Will I get to install/configure the equipment?

“While vendor training or non-RTO training can be beneficial to the installer’s knowledge and skills, why pay money for non-RTO training when you potentially get nothing more than a show and tell,” said Tolliday.

“As an industry, we need to ensure designers and installers have the knowledge and skills to complete quality installations that comply with all the standards and guidelines. If we don’t, then the industry will get a bad name and we all lose.”

“Working with DC voltages may be new to some electricians and the risks and hazards associated with solar PV installations are different to typical electrical contracting work,” says Laurence Viegas from GSES who adds that solar installation requires a number of additional skills including working at heights, installing weatherisation and roof flashings, conducting financial analysis to prove return on investment and sizing equipment for a safe and efficient operation.

Busy year ahead

Having a knowledgeable workforce says Viegas helps to ensure that customers of solar PV systems are getting the best outcomes, which in turn ultimately supports the growth of the industry.

“The Clean Energy Council accreditation scheme is critical to the industry. The scheme ensures that operators have the fundamental background knowledge to do the job and are receiving Continuous Professional Development (CPD) in order to keep their knowledge current. In order to obtain a CEC accreditation, an installer must be trained by an RTO.”

Electro-Training Institute’s Jeff McRobb is a qualified electrician and says without proper training from RTO’s with industry experience, installations would descend into utter chaos.

“As you would imagine we are dealing with very dangerous voltage levels and there does need to be formal training delivered by registered RTOs to a nationally recognised training module. With the current trends in the solar industry gathering momentum, 2019 should see an increase in training.”

McRobb says a solar installer should always have quality in mind and not speed of installs with many companies focussing on turnover and not quality which he believes is detrimental to the industry.”

Leaps and bounds in technology

Across the sector, technology and IT are the drivers of change and there is a need to continually up-skill with the current trends in training solar installers being GC battery storage.

“It’s all the rage and with current state government incentives across the country for both PV and GC battery storage, the demand for training is now,” said Tolliday.

“In Victoria, the state government has indicated we need 5000 installers trained in the next 10 years. Good RTO’s are providing more time-on, hands-on training on the latest equipment as well as the knowledge requirements,” said Tolliday.

“Again in Victoria, a new course in new energy technology systems has been developed and approved which provides a pathway for non-electricians to enter the solar industry. Now before all the electricians start screaming, solar installations must still be done by a qualified electrician, however site inspections and designing does not. Ideally, all sales people and site assessors will have the site assessment unit as a minimum thus stopping the current practice of misinformation by sales people who are just after their commission.”

“Current knowledge of advancements and new products are important to your training delivery. While the underpinning knowledge is the same, it’s important to be using the latest technology. I talk to suppliers to get the latest info on their product range and leading manufacturers recognise the quality of our training centre Holmesglen Energy Centre for Excellence and support the centre.”

“I talk to installers and often visit their interesting projects to get an understanding of current practices,” said Tolliday.

GSES is working on making their courses more dynamic and relevant to working in the field which Viegas suggests will be done through the Units of Competence which he says provide a sound fundamental understanding of how to design and install solar PV.

“Some requirements specific to networks, standards or guidelines may require more training but GCES is creating advanced topic courses which cover many of these areas.”

“Those looking to get involved in the renewable energy industry need to be ready to work in a fast-paced field. Product changes, standards change and pricing move very quickly in this industry, which makes it both challenging and exciting. We hope that industry participants also have a passion for the industry and look to support their customers and the industry through ethical practices and sharing,” said Viegas.

GSES which also has a consulting business says it’s important to be across the latest technology and applications of the technology.

“GSES training group makes itself available to its student s for the duration of the course (12 months accessibility) to answer any and all questions about the industry. After a student completes their course, they will have the option to become a member of the GSES+ platform, set to launch in January 2019. This will give them access to white papers, educational videos, hotline and text line access and direct access from the consultancy team.”

“As installers move along the experience curve, they will find that installations are becoming easier. Supply chain will be better defined, products have more functionality and are more intuitive to install and use and industry tools have been developed to assist all along the way. In saying this, however, as installers move into large installations, there are difficulties in setting up protection systems and complying with network requirements. These are areas where GSES is already set up to help as both a training company and as a consultancy,” said Viegas.

The art of upskilling

Solar installation is an evolving sector and one where there is rapid change. Technology as mentioned is driving the sector towards more efficient systems where IT features like Bluetooth and wireless are the norm. Upskilling for any installer is a requirement if they want to stay in the game.

McRobb believes it’s very important for existing installers to keep upskilling through whatever avenues are available to them.

“We train our students to all the relevant guidelines and latest Australian Standards. We are constantly up-skilling ourselves to keep up to date with the constant changes that are going on.”

“I am passionate about this absolute revolution in the electrical industry. It is very exciting time in our industry and we try and expose any sales orientated organisations trying to scam the industry and turnover fast bucks and then disappear. As you would expect there are a lot of scammers out there,” said McRobb.

Tolliday says some systems are more complicated to install and some are easier with communication being the hardest part for GC generation systems.

“Installers need to take extra care with getting the monitoring working. Connecting to a customer’s Wi-Fi and internet can be problematic. A simple install like a CT (current transformer) in the wrong direction will cause problems. Then you may have a vendor monitoring portals to deal with as well. Technology can be good, but may add extra time to the job if it doesn’t work correctly.”

Tolliday adds that products are changing all the time while the basics remain the same and many new products having new features.

“It is important that installers do vendor training on the product they use. Monitoring systems has become a feature customers now want so connections to Wi-Fi, the cloud, vendor portals is all new and many installers struggle with this so they need the training.”

“Keeping current on the latest Standards is important to stay compliant. In the last few years, new updated versions of AS/NZS 5033, AS/NZS 4777 and AS/NZS 3000 have been released and hopefully sometime soon, a new Standard AS/NZS 5139: Electrical installations – Safety to battery systems for the use with power conversion equipment will be released,” said Tolliday adding that accredited installers are required to complete 100 points of CPD every year to maintain their currency.

Viegas makes the point that it’s important even for installers who are active industry participants to keep up-skilling.

“This industry moves fast, and if you’re not up-skilling all the time then advancements and critical changes will be missed.”

“GSES’ core focus is quality training. We have been communicating the needs for quality training, competency-based training and capacity building for 20 years and we have put it our communication into practice. We are one of the only groups that creates all of its own content including the main set of industry text books used by RTO’s, TAFE’s and universities. Much of GSES’ content is put out to the industry for free as information to support practitioners. GSES does this because it believes that for the industry to develop successfully, capacity must be built from the bottom up within the framework set from the top down.”

“The renewable energy industry and the success of the industry as a whole drive GSES as an education group. The industry is exciting to work within for sure, but above all else, this industry has a core value system based on building a clean energy future for generations to come. An industry with a value system and vision for the future is a rare and motivating thing,” said Viegas.

A sentiment McRobb shares adding that it’s his passion about the revolution in the electrical industry that drives him to work as an educator.

“It is a very exciting time in our industry and we try and expose any sales orientated organisations trying to scam the industry and turnover fast bucks and then disappear. As you would expect there are a lot of scammers out there.”

Tolliday is just as passionate about the industry and says he would love to say the money is the driving force behind becoming an educator but it’s the passing on of knowledge and skills to others and the realistic view of what needs to be done that is his motivation.

“I enjoy the banter of the classroom and seeing installers finally ‘get it’. I encourage good installers to consider becoming instructors and passing on their knowledge.”