Go With the Pros: UL now offers its solar panel installation program through the country's largest electricians' union and that trade's association.
In the second quarter of 2012, 98.2 megawatts worth of photovoltaic (PV) panels were installed on homes across the U.S. That was the fourth consecutive quarter of growth for the residential solar market, accordingto the Solar Energy Industry Association and GTM Research
. California, Arizona, and New Jersey led residential installations nationwide.
But how many of those panels were installed by qualified electricians is anyone’s guess. There’s still a lot of “confusion” in many states about who can put in PV panels for residential, commercial, or utility use, says Todd Stafford, senior director for the National JointApprenticeship andTraining Committee (NJATC). In its 68th year, NJACT serves the 675,000 members of the InternationalBrotherhood of ElectricalWorkers (IBEW) and the NationalElectrical Contractors Association (NECA), with 119 locals nationwide.
Seeing an opening to market to safety-conscious consumers and businesses, the two trade groups recently agreed to offer UL’s Photovoltaic Installation Certification to their members, who now have access to the UL credential by participating in hands-on, classroom-based training with either UL Knowledge Services or NJATC, and then passing an exam to demonstrate their knowledge.
There are other certification programs out there, but UL’s is the only one that confines its certification to already qualified electricians, says Jill Oakman, UL Knowledge Services’ general manager. “We created the program [in 2010] to exceed the existing industry standards, and the courses support our public safety mission.”
Stafford adds that electrical apprentices can’t even take this course until they’ve completed four of their five years of apprenticeship. As for journeymen, Stafford says those who are well acquainted with the national electrical codes are probably ready to take the exam. For those that aren’t, “we offer a refresher course.”
Oakman says UL’s training and exam take about five days to complete and cost $1,695 for the training and $300 for the exam per person. It may take electricians longer if they are taking the course through NJATC, says Stafford, because most are taking classes at night.
These courses and certification can benefit electricians in several ways, he explains. “It shows that they’ve completed the training and showcases their abilities.” That certification could come in handy if, as Stafford hopes, more states start mandating certification for PV panel installation.
Residential installations account for a growing but small portion of the solar panel industry. Quoting Department of Energy estimates, Stafford says that about 6% of the 132.7 million housing units in the U.S. are suitable or suitably located for solar panels. “That’s still a big number,” says Stafford, but it’s still a sliver beside the “sheer volume” potential of commercial and utility installations.
The Solar Energy Industry Association estimates that the total solar market grew by 45% in the second quarter, over the same period a year ago, with 741.7 megawatts installed, of which utilities accounted for 477 megawatts. The report forecasts a total of 3,200 megawatts, or 3.2 gigawatts, of PV will be installed in the U.S. in 2012, up 71% over 2011.
Photo credit: NJACT
John Caulfield is senior editor forBuilder magazine.