Ezra Auerbach, NABCEP
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Ezra Auerbach has lived off-grid for more than 30 years, and he co-founded his first renewable energy business in 1986. Since then he has been involved in the industry in several capacities, including sales, marketing, product management, engineering and consulting. In 2000, Auerbach and other industry veterans co-founded the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) with the goal of building customer confidence through the development of voluntary industry certifications and credentials. In October 2003, nearly 100 candidates from 37 states sat for NABCEP’s first certification exam, resulting in 62 inaugural NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installers. In the decade since, NABCEP has added three certifications—PV Technical Sales, Solar Heating Installer and Small Wind Installer—as well as a NABCEP Company Accreditation program. The more than 2,500 existing NABCEP-certified professionals represent all 50 US states, five Canadian provinces and Puerto Rico.
SP: Based on how the industry has grown over the last decade, founding NABCEP seems logical and timely in hindsight. What was the state of the industry when the idea for NABCEP first came about?
EA: At the turn of the century, the PV industry was much smaller than it is now, and a considerable amount of projects were battery based—either offgrid or grid-tied with battery backup. Y2K fears and preparations resulted in record sales for the industry, and the on-grid market was beginning to heat up as incentives for grid-tied PV applications were introduced.
SP: Whose idea was it? And how did you manage to turn that idea into a reality?
EA: Developing a certification program for installers was not the idea of a single person, but rather a collective decision in response to a growing problem, which, simply put, was a marked increase in poor-quality installations. Mark Fitzgerald, who headed the Institute for Sustainable Power Quality, was a driving force in the development of NABCEP. He was instrumental in bringing together the wide-ranging group of stakeholders that formed the initial ad hoc board that created NABCEP. That ad hoc board included representatives from manufacturers, installers, policy makers, national labs, educators, labor, the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. Building consensus was challenging. However, each individual’s commitment to productive cooperation enabled us to establish the framework and mission for NABCEP. In addition, the effort received financial support from the US Department of Energy and from the various organizations that paid the expenses for their representatives to be at the table.
SP: Why did you and the other co-founders feel that there was a need for NABCEP?
EA: History. Most of the NABCEP founders recalled the fallout of the Carter-era solar heating incentive programs. The solar heating industry paid dearly for the high number of poorly designed and installed systems from that era. It earned an undeserved reputation for unreliability. In 2000, the PV industry was on the cusp of the same sort of opportunity. Incentive money was beginning to flow, and it was very clear to the founders of NABCEP that our nascent industry could collapse under the weight of poorly performing or inadequately designed systems. We felt that it would be better for the PV industry to develop its own voluntary certification program than to wait for the government to do it for us.
SP: What were the biggest challenges with establishing a certifying organization?
EA: Attaining industry buy-in to a new concept was the biggest challenge. Manufacturers were concerned that personal certification programs might constrain their ability to attract new customers or raise costs. Installers were resistant to a program that they thought might introduce an additional layer of regulation. Fortunately, the individuals who volunteered to help establish NABCEP possess extensive experience and personal reputations within the industry, which was pivotal to the organization becoming recognized and accepted.
SP: Has NABCEP’s mission changed over time?
EA: Our mission has remained consistent since the founding of NABCEP. We focus on offering renewable energy professionals certification programs that are intended to promote consumer confidence and worker safety while offering value to the certificants. We feel no need to change this mission and have lots of work ahead of us as we continue to execute our goals.
SP: NABCEP recently implemented changes to its flagship PV Installer certification. Certificants will now be known as NABCEP Certified PV Installation Professionals. What inspired the board to make this change?
EA: The board chose to implement the change from PV Installer to PV Installation Professional to reflect the evolution of the job roles within the PV installation industry. When the organization was founded, it was a very different industry, with mostly mom-and-pop companies doing sales and installation of relatively small systems. Often a single individual in those companies fulfilled multiple roles, including sales, design, installation, commissioning, troubleshooting and follow-up service. Today’s industry is very different—companies have grown, as has the scope of many of the installations. With that change has come growing specialization. We recognize that in many installations, more than one person holds a decision-making role that is material to the quality and serviceability of the installation. We also recognize that each of these decision makers needs to call upon the full range of knowledge that the PV Installation Professional job task analysis (JTA) covers to do the work successfully.