The State of the Solar Industry: Page 6 of 9

Solar Energy International (SEI at solarenergy.org)
Kathryn Swartz, executive director

SEI was founded in 1991 as a nonprofit educational organization to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy. SEI offers hands-on workshops and online courses in solar PV, microhydro and solar hot water. One of the more than 50,000 alumni of SEI, Kathryn Swartz has been its executive director since 2012. She has a background in environmental education.

What recent developments stand out as especially good news for the US solar industry?

From a policy perspective, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruling in support of rural electric co-ops was one of the most important events. FERC affirmed the right of Delta-Montrose Electric Association—which happens to be SEI’s electric co-op—to buy electricity outside the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. FERC’s ruling in support of cooperatives’ ability to buy electricity from qualified facilities significantly increases the prospects for distributed energy in rural America, which has over 900 electric co-ops. In Delta County, Colorado, where SEI is based, this ruling creates the opportunity for large-scale local renewable energy systems, including PV, microhydro, biogas and coal-mine methane.

Additionally, Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk has brought much attention to the potential of energy storage and roofing tiles, which other companies have tried to do for years. The general public, although sometimes misinformed from a technical perspective, is actively discussing renewable energy and storage, and it’s incredibly exciting. Regardless of what happens with Tesla, Musk’s announcements have spurred innovation and growth within the industry.

Lastly, the National Fire Protection Association put PV modules on the cover of NEC 2017, which is a testament to how far we have come as an industry. Regardless of what one thinks about the major rapid-shutdown overhaul, the industry is working more closely than ever with stakeholder groups, such as firefighters, and that benefits all of us.

Moving into 2017, what initiatives is SEI prioritizing?

This year, SEI is prioritizing the expansion of our international outreach efforts, including expanding our scholarship funds so that no person is denied the opportunity for quality technical PV training. In 2016, SEI gave over 80 scholarships to people from around the world, including members of the Masai tribe in Kenya; refugees from Syria and Sudan; students from India, Iraq, Nigeria, Ecuador, Belize and Colombia; and US veterans who no longer had access to GI Bill funding for training. We are also in the process of developing international hands-on training centers, which we will model off SEI’s flagship campus in Paonia, Colorado. People from around the world take our online courses. However, there’s no substitute for in-person, hands-on training. By developing international satellite training locations, we can bring our hands-on quality training to even more people.

SEI has more than 50,000 alumni of its training programs. How has the profile of SEI’s training participants changed?

To date, we have provided training to people from all 50 states and 190 different countries through our online campus and in-person trainings. When we founded SEI more than 25 years ago, we mostly trained homeowners who were seeking energy independence through off-grid living. As the industry has changed, so too have our participants. They come to SEI for solar training for a multitude of reasons. Some are driven by a desire for energy independence—that hasn’t changed—or are seeking financial opportunities and career development. Others are concerned about geopolitical and global conflict pressures or fascinated with the technologies driving the clean energy sector. We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of veterans we are serving. Though we’ve always been an international training nonprofit, we’ve seen a major increase in the number of students from both the developing world and emerging markets.

Has the focus of SEI’s training programs evolved in recent years?

Though grid-connected applications obviously make up the bulk of the US solar market, SEI has always maintained a comprehensive energy storage program. We now have over 175 hours of energy storage curriculum that we continue to change as new technologies emerge. We’ve also spent a lot of time on our O&M trainings, and we will be launching an online O&M course in the spring of 2017. Geographically we’ve expanded with the addition of our Programa Hispano training for Latin America and our new Middle East Program. We have a team of ten people working on not only updating our online and in-person trainings, but also developing new courses.

What training opportunities does SEI offer for solar professionals?

SEI offers a variety of high-level trainings for professionals already working in the solar industry, from hands-on O&M, to advanced one-day conference trainings, to on-demand online continuing education courses. All of SEI’s training provides NABCEP education hours for certification or continuing education credits for recertification. We also offer the SEI Solar Professionals Certificate Program (SPCP), which creates a pathway to graduation requiring more than 200 hours of training and multiple tracks of emphasis. Many of our SPCP graduates go on to get NABCEP certification.

SEI launched SEI Professional Services and SEI Engineering in 2015 and 2016, respectively. What technical services is SEI offering and what businesses or groups could leverage and benefit from these services?

SEI launched these two for-profit entities because of the many requests from our alumni, who wanted additional support as they began businesses or took on more complicated projects. Not only are we supporting our alumni and their business growth, but we are also providing professional growth opportunities for SEI staff and instructors who work on a wide variety of projects, and that feeds back into keeping our curriculum cutting-edge. In addition, the profits support SEI’s nonprofit mission and fund our scholarship program.

SEI Professional Services offers third-party commissioning, performance verification, design, consulting and feasibility services. SEI Engineering provides electrical and civil permitting and construction documents for projects ranging from residential to microgrids to utility scale. We’ve worked with companies from around the world, from start-ups to established multinational corporations, to provide them with the tools they need to implement successful projects, and we’ve only just begun.

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