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Solar training standardization – Business decision, safety issue or both?

Hair stylist, architect and solar PV installer—which is the odd man out? If you're like most people, you probably selected the hair stylist—an easy choice given that the other two professions deal with complex, technical and potentially dangerous processes. However, if you've been sitting where I've been sitting for the past year, you'll notice another outlier in the list—one whose lack of regulation and certification could severely limit the growth potential of Canada's recovering economy.


December 7, 2010
By Jacob Travis and Austin Brentley

Where was your PV installer trained?

Currently, there exist no formal regulations, guidelines or certification requirements for PV installers in Canada. Quite literally, anyone can charge money to install PV technology on roofs or unused land, completely unsupervised. You don’t need any advanced degrees. You don’t need special papers. You don’t even need official recognition from any governing agency. Contrast this with hair stylists and architects, both of whom require formal training and licensing before they can work professionally. Such is the landscape of Canada’s green economy.

Changing this landscape has become one of the primary goals of Ontario Solar Network, a new member-driven, non-profit association dedicated to advancing business development for stakeholders in the province’s solar PV market. As CEO of Ontario Solar Academy and founder of the Network, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the frustration and confusion that accompanies nascent industries hindered by insufficient guidance. For while Ontario’s Green Energy Act, one of the most ambitious and progressive pieces of renewable energy legislation on the planet, provides unambiguous feedback regarding contract lengths, price rates and even where one must source parts and labour, it provides little guidance on the training and certification necessary to ensure that the province delivers on its tremendous “green” potential. The situation does not improve as you wander to the other provinces. 

Why is standardized education even necessary?

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Increased safety is probably the most obvious benefit of standardization. You want to know that the person cutting your hair or designing the adjacent office building knows what he or she is doing. This much is true for renewable energy as well—regardless of the source (sun, wind, coal), electricity generation is, by its very nature, dangerous, and you only want qualified professionals involved. 

As the liaison between end-user and manufacturer, PV installers are the most conspicuous professionals in the wider renewable energy field, and they are the focus of this article. However, insufficient certification affects many other service branches of the larger green industry, and safety is just one of many potential concerns. After all, standardization is also a business decision. One need look no further than solar PV manufacturing to understand this relationship—components that fit pre-defined parameters require less factory retooling; established safety guidelines lead to fewer factory accidents; standardized equipment necessitates less training. Combined, these measures allow businesses to plan more effectively for the long term as they cut costs and budget appropriately.

Whether implemented voluntarily or mandated by the government, standardized training and professional certification also provide a common yardstick against which employers and clients can measure the relative ability of potential renewable energy professionals. CanSIA’s 2009 report showing that over 50% of solar installation firms expect to face severe labour shortages in the coming year is illustrative of the challenges that hiring managers face when sourcing reliable talent without such a yardstick. After all, if training and certification were not necessary, how could such labour shortages exist in a country with 8% unemployment? You would think that solar firms would be deluged with potential applicants and not worried about filling empty slots.

The true cost of standardized renewable energy education

Implementing anything new takes both time and money, and so yes, there will absolutely be costs associated with standardization: higher taxes, pricier systems or even more expensive labour. However, there exist even bigger costs without such oversight. Consider the searching costs required to source labour in the absence of standardized guidelines. Or think about the legal and maintenance costs associated with shoddy workmanship. And then there are the added advantages of fewer mistakes, better service and less uncertainty—very real benefits that are not always captured accurately in balance sheets.

While implementing new certification standards will indeed entail some costs, the process itself need not be costly. There exist agencies both in and outside of Canada that can serve as useful templates, allowing us to incorporate best practices and codes suited for the Canadian context. 

Ontario Solar Academy, founding member of the Network, recently adopted this approach—in October of this year, it became Canada’s first and only ISPQ-accredited solar training school. And this December, Ontario Solar Academy has begun offering prep courses to accompany the NABCEP PV Entry Level Exam that the school now administers throughout the year.

By meeting rigorously defined criteria handed down from international agencies like ISPQ and NABCEP, Ontario Solar Academy provides a reference point that allows potential employers and clients to assess the skills of any graduates from the program. Employers know that the graduates they’re hiring have already mastered the NABCEP learning objectives and regulatory safety codes featured throughout Ontario Solar Academy’s 5-Day PV Design & Installation course. They also know that the facilities and instructors have satisfied stringent accreditation requirements. As a result, nearly 100% of Ontario Solar Academy’s graduates are employed in the renewable energy industry within three months of finishing the course.

Template for a greener future

Whether or not other schools should adopt the above model is beyond the scope of this article. Ontario Solar Academy’s success offers numerous insights, but it is by no means the only approach that could fill the labour gap and reduce hiring uncertainty. What is clear, however, is a growing need for consistent and inclusive guidelines to help move today’s unregulated green labour market towards a more cohesive pool of talent. Failure to do so will not only continue adding hidden costs into Canada’s renewable energy ecosystem, but it will also prevent the country from competing with other nations that have already begun regulating those professions most critical to continued sustainability and growth.

Jacob Travis is the CEO of Ontario Solar Academy and the President of Ontario Solar Network. Austin Brentley, an Energy Management columnist, contributed to this article.