In the past, a small crew of workers with a truck served as a whole solar company, and each crew member had a good grasp of the basics of the industry. They all were well-versed enough in the industry to talk to and sell to customers, which afforded them a fair amount of job mobility because they could serve in a wide variety of positions.
However, with the solar industry’s fast expansion, companies have become focused on specific niches and workers have become so compartmentalized they don’t always know the basics of the industry, says Dr. Sean White, instructor of HeatSpring’s Solar PV Installer Boot Camp + NABCEP PV Associate Exam Prep course. He was the 2014 Interstate Renewable Energy Council Trainer of the Year and is an ISPQ Certified Solar PV Master Trainer plus an author of several solar energy books.
This compartmentalization makes it harder for solar workers to interact with customers–and it also makes it difficult for workers to move to new jobs.
“The compartmentalization among solar companies is changing the way things are happening,” says White. “People get so focused on their little part of the industry, they’ve become way less valuable because they don’t have a wide array of knowledge,” he says. “They need education.”
Industry workers would benefit by knowing how to read a utility bill, understanding the difference between energy (kWh) and power (kW), comprehending different types of solar payment plans, and being up-to-date on issues such as new and future technologies, he says. This will set them apart in the industry.
“It’s job security,” says White. “People don’t know the difference between voltage and DC current.”
Following are some of the basics that will help set you apart in the solar industry.
Utility Bill Basics
In addition to being charged for energy, customers are often charged for demand. Demand charges are generally for larger electrical users and are measured in power (kW), as opposed to energy (kWh). They come into play during peak hours, when utilities want to lower their peak usage.
Sometimes, utilities offer demand management programs under which they pay businesses and/or residential customers for cutting back on their usage during peak hours. Solar systems can often help achieve this goal, depending on the location of customers and their rates. If, for example, a solar array owner generates during peak hours, that solar power can help offset a utility’s peak demand.
Another rate system that helps clean the electric grid is time-of-use. By using time-of-use rates and shifting energy use to off-peak hours of the day, customers can save money because their rates are lower during off-peak hours. Electric car users often opt for off-peak rates. They can also charge their cars using solar energy.
With the increasing penetration of intermittent renewable energy on the grid, batteries and blockchain technology will be incorporated into the grid in order to logically organize power and energy. This will help grids safely, efficiently and logically send and receive electricity.
Power and Energy Explained
Simply put, power is the voltage multiplied by the current, while energy is power multiplied by time. If utility customers are billed for 1 kWh, it means they’ve used 1 kW of power for a total of one hour. It’s important to note that electric bills are mostly configured by energy, not power.
Utility customers generally don’t understand these terms, and appreciate a solar expert who can explain them.
If you’re looking for a raise or a new job, energy literacy is a big help!
How Solar Producers Get Paid
Many solar producers are on net metering plans with their utilities. The amount of electricity solar modules generate varies widely, and net metering is a way for utility companies to credit producers for the electricity generated. Generally, under a net metering rate, the meter runs backwards when solar is being produced. These rates are falling out of favor because they don’t recognize that renewable energy can be more valuable during different times of day and because of the exponential growth of solar energy.
As an alternative, solar producers can sign power-purchase agreements. Developers choose this option when customers want to pay little up-front costs. The developer sells the power generated to the customer at a fixed rate that’s cheaper than the utility rate. The customer’s monthly savings offsets the initial cost of the systems.
Most solar energy these days is sold to utilities by large solar power plant owners through power purchase agreements. The agreements, often 20-to 30-year contracts, feature many variables and are penned by industry experts, attorneys and utilities.
More recently, utility companies have begun offering incentives for solar producers to use the energy they are producing, rather than exporting all of it to the grid. They’re offering less money for exports in some cases. That’s because utilities express concern that they could have too much solar on the grid compared to what they need. Utility companies and local public utility commissions are constantly adjusting the policies and incentives to find the right balance, says White.
Keeping an Eye on Inverters
While utilities are struggling with high amounts of solar power, new products are being integrated into solar panels at a rapid pace. Inverter technology is one of these technologies; we’re beginning to see solar panel inverters that allow electric car owners to charge their cars directly from panels and the grid at the same time for a boost charge. In addition, keep an eye on inverters that allow utilities to control PV systems so they can manage large amounts of solar power.
Lower Solar Prices Mean More Opportunities
Just as rapidly as these new technologies are emerging, the price of solar is dropping. “As the price of solar goes down, it pays people to put solar where they never would have put it before. I recently put PV on my north-facing roof near a tree because it’s so cheap,” says White. “In fact, solar prices are dropping so quickly that some people are afraid that there will be tariffs to make solar cost more.”
Along with the basics, it’s important to track news about the solar industry, says White. For example, federal trade officials are now deciding whether to implement a tariff on foreign PV modules requested by Suniva, a bankrupt US solar manufacturer.
While the solar energy market is expected to trend upward over the long-term, market fluctuations over the short-term can undermine the success of solar workers who haven’t educated themselves and expanded their general knowledge of the industry.
“American companies are going bankrupt trying to compete with Asian manufacturers,” says White. “And the industry goes up and down. People need to be educated so they’re not Number One on the layoff list.”
NABCEP Solar PV Associate and Solar PV Installer Certification
The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, or NABCEP is industry gold standard for solar installer certifications.
NABCEP has two levels of accreditation for solar photovoltaic (PV) installers: Photovoltaic Associate for entry level professionals and Photovoltaic Installation Professional Certification for advanced installers. Learn more about NABCEP Accreditation or Dr. Sean White.