Richard Lawrence, NABCEP

Advancing Certification and Standards for Solar Professionals

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A group of dedicated volunteers from the renewable energy industry founded the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) as a nonprofit organization in 2002. NABCEP administers the most well-recognized and respected personnel certifications for renewable energy professionals in North America. The organization launched the first Solar PV Installer certification exam (now called PV Installation Professional) in 2003, the first Solar Heating Installer certification in 2006 and the first PV Technical Sales Professional certification in 2011. NABCEP began its Company Accreditation Program in 2012. In the 13 years since NABCEP recognized the first Certified Solar PV Installers, over 3,850 individuals have achieved NABCEP certification and over 28,500 have taken an entry-level exam.

Richard Lawrence is NABCEP’s executive director. He holds an MS in environmental education from Lesley University, where he focused on renewable energy education, training and workforce development. Lawrence joined NABCEP in 2011 as the director of operations and became the executive director in 2013. Previously, he worked for 10 years as a renewable energy educator and advocate with several nonprofit organizations and community colleges throughout the Northeastern US.

SP: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) accredits NABCEP’s PV Installation Professional and Solar Heating Installer Certifications. Can you explain what that means and elaborate on what is required to achieve and maintain ANSI accreditation for a personnel certification program?

RL: Being ANSI accredited means that we follow international standards and best practices in the development, maintenance and administration of our certification programs. Since 2007, ANSI accreditation has ensured that the NABCEP PV Installation Professional certification is in compliance with the ISO/IEC 17024 standard. Independent ANSI assessors regularly review and audit all our policies and procedures regarding certification to ensure that we continue to operate in accordance with this rigorous international standard. The standard has strong emphasis on impartiality, fairness, security, confidentiality, reliability and validity. Anyone can issue a piece of paper saying that someone is certified; operating a certification program in accordance with ISO/IEC 17024 means that the issuer took all the right steps to obtain industry input and validation of the job task analysis [the information essential for understanding what tasks are required on the job and what knowledge, skills and abilities are necessary to carry out those tasks], certification eligibility criteria, examination method and recertification requirements. Ultimately, it means that the certifications we issue are rigorous and well respected by the industry, consumers and other stakeholders.

SP: What is the role of continuing education within a personnel certification program, and what are NABCEP’s specific continuing education requirements?

RL: Solar professionals should view NABCEP certification as a dynamic and ongoing process. One of the requirements of ANSI accreditation is that the certifying body ensures on a regular basis that those with its certification remain competent at performing the job. Those who achieve our certifications must actively perform the job for which we have certified them, and they must regularly update and refresh their knowledge about the profession through continuing education activities. NABCEP accomplishes this with a recertification procedure every 3 years.

Each of our certifications has slightly different requirements for recertification, but all certificants must complete at least 18 hours of relevant training and demonstrate a decision-making role on a minimum number of completed jobs every 3 years. This essentially amounts to a minimum of 1 day of training per year. While dozens of registered training providers offer continuing education opportunities throughout the year, NABCEP designed its annual Continuing Education Conference to provide all 18 hours over a single 3-day period. We move the conference between locations in the east, west and central parts of the country so that at least once every 3 years we hold the event in regions where we have a lot of certified professionals.

SP: What does NABCEP look for when approving a continuing education provider?

RL: We intend our continuing education to keep our certified professionals up to date on the latest codes and standards, technology and industry best practices. Companies or training institutions offering courses for experienced workers related to one of our certification job task analyses can register them for NABCEP CE credits by completing a simple application. Most NABCEP CE providers are product manufacturers offering technical training sessions on their equipment. Taking these types of courses helps ensure that solar professionals have training that is directly related to the actual equipment they are specifying, installing and maintaining for customers.

SP: NABCEP is holding its fifth annual Continuing Education Conference in San Diego April 4–6, 2016. Do you have to be NABCEP Certified to attend this event?

RL: While the primary purpose of the conference is to provide current NABCEP-certified professionals with an opportunity to get all of the training they need to recertify, the annual NABCEP Continuing Education Conference is also a great event for skilled PV professionals who are not yet certified. All the sessions are geared for people who have significant PV experience, so we do have some requirements for who can attend. The majority of attendees are NABCEP certified, and this creates a unique and much anticipated event for those working every day designing, selling, installing and maintaining PV systems. Attendees enjoy networking with others like them who eat, sleep and breathe PV, and they appreciate the attention the organizers, exhibitors and speakers give to ensure that the activities and content are as relevant as possible to them.

SP: What are some of the new training sessions this year’s event will offer?

RL: The first 2 days of the conference are split between exhibitor technical training sessions in the morning and in-depth special topic panel sessions in the afternoon. The third day has a few all-day options available for really diving into a topic. As always, a select group of exhibitors will be updating participants on their latest products through 90-minute technical sessions. The sessions keep the sales pitch to a minimum and give attendees the opportunity to engage with high-level technical staff. We have a great lineup covering all the major components of residential- and commercial-scale systems, with and without storage.

SP: How are the panel sessions shaping up and what are some of the highlights?

RL: Each year we engage a diverse group of industry experts on a conference planning committee. The main objective is to come up with a short list of the most relevant and interesting topics for the 2-hour panel sessions. Using their input and feedback from last year’s attendees, we’ve arranged 16 of the most timely and focused presentations for PV sales and installation professionals. This year, we’ve focused more on energy storage, larger-scale systems and technical sales, while keeping important sessions on technical challenges and installation best practices.

SP: Is NABCEP getting a good response from vendors for participation in the equipment and services expo?

RL: Yes! We have sold out exhibit space every year so far and fully expect to sell out again. Exhibitor interest is very strong in this event because we put exhibitors in front of the most active, knowledgeable and experienced professionals in the country. Many exhibitors comment on how much more valuable this event is to them than the bigger trade shows are, because everyone they talk with is actually buying and installing product.

SP: According to GTM Research, the two largest national integration firms—SolarCity and Vivint Solar—accounted for 46% of the US residential solar market in the first half of 2015. How does the trend toward increasingly large installation companies impact national certification efforts?

RL: We originally intended the NABCEP PV Installation Professional certification for the one person a customer worked with to design, install and maintain a system. As companies grow larger, there’s a natural progression toward more specialization of the workforce. As such, it can now take quite a bit longer for an employee in a larger company to master the breadth of tasks covered in NABCEP’s job task analysis. Those who are able to achieve certification are held in higher regard within these companies and quickly move up the ranks. The needs of the industry have always guided NABCEP’s programs. As the industry evolves, we continue to adjust our programs and develop new credentials to meet stakeholder needs.

SP: Is NABCEP working on any new projects or certifications?

RL: We have a lot of new and exciting initiatives in 2016. First, the board has approved a major update to the NABCEP Entry Level Program. Tens of thousands of people have taken this exam over the past 10 years. It serves to identify those who have mastered the fundamentals of the technology and is a great tool for employers to use in hiring and promoting staff in a wide variety of positions. We will be rebranding the program as the NABCEP Associate, and a new experience-based pathway will allow anyone with 6 months of relevant work experience to qualify for the credential.

We are also just about to launch two new credentials targeting system inspectors, one for PV and one for solar heating. Reports from companies hired to perform comprehensive post-installation system inspections have found that most systems installed today still have code violations after the AHJ has approved them. We hope that these new credentials encourage code officials across the country to learn more about solar and what to look out for when inspecting these systems.

Finally, we will be conducting a major update and revision to the PV Installation Professional job task analysis this year. During this update, we will identify the knowledge and skills associated with the major divisions of system design, installation and maintenance that we see workers specializing in. Doing so will pave the way toward developing new credentials for people performing a portion of the overall job task analysis.

SP: Do you have any insight into where new markets for solar are emerging in North America now based on the demand for NABCEP certification?

RL: We’ve seen a growing market in the Southeast over the past few years. While I’m excited about the new market there and encouraged by the adoption of requirements for NABCEP credentials that we see in some of the utilities in these areas, my bigger concern is what I see happening in some of the existing markets around net metering, demand charges and other policies that have a dramatic impact on the economic viability of solar. Some states have seen hundreds of jobs disappear literally overnight. These attacks on solar are cropping up all across the country. It’s more important than ever for solar companies to pay attention and get involved.

SP: Several solar training organizations offer courses designed to help individuals prepare for NABCEP’s PV Installation Professional and PV Technical Sales certifications. What advice do you have to help solar professionals evaluate the various providers?

RL: Hundreds of schools, colleges, nonprofit organizations and private companies offer solar courses today. The vast majority offer only one or two introductory-level courses. These can be a great way to get started, but it’s naïve to think that you can learn everything needed to become a solar professional from one or two classes on the subject. The best programs offer a wide variety of courses and focus on renewable energy technology. They have a strong introductory level class or two, and intermediate and advanced courses in topics such as off-grid systems, technical sales, commercial-scale design, and maintenance and troubleshooting. In addition, while an online course can be very valuable, there’s no substitute for hands-on experience. Better training programs have a dedicated lab with a variety of different types of systems and components. Finally, if the goal is to prepare for one of our certification exams, instructors should have the certification themselves.

SP: What are the benefits of NABCEP’s Company Accreditation program and how does it differ from the certification an individual would acquire?

RL: NABCEP certifies individuals and accredits companies. Both certification and accreditation are ultimately about consumer protection. When we initially developed our certification programs, customers were primarily hiring individual contractors to install and maintain their solar equipment. Now customers are comparing quotes from different companies and have very little control over who actually designs and installs the system. The NABCEP Company Accreditation Program helps to ensure that the company has qualified staff; appropriate policies and procedures; a focus on worker safety; and commitments to ongoing staff training, quality assurance and ethical practice.

SP: We were pleased to see that NABCEP recently elected one of our contributing authors, Rebekah Hren, to its board of directors. What other opportunities does NABCEP have for professionals looking to support the organization?

RL: NABCEP wouldn’t exist without the contributions and dedication of industry experts. We have over 100 volunteers who serve on our board and various committees. We’re always looking for experienced professionals to provide guidance and technical assistance in the development and maintenance of our programs. If anyone is interested, please send a resume and letter of interest to info@nabcep.org. We also love having NABCEP Certified Professionals volunteer time at our booth at different conferences during the year to speak with people about the value of their certification and what it has meant for their careers.

SP: In addition to the Continuing Education Conference, what are some NABCEP-related dates industry professionals should be aware of in 2016?

RL: The next application deadline for certification exams is August 5, 2016. NABCEP Continuing Education training will be available at Intersolar North America in July and Solar Power International in September. Of course, people can check the SolarPro training calendar for other NABCEP CE Credit opportunities throughout the year.

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