The U.S. is projected to see increases in the solar energy industry this year, and with this comes new opportunities for learning.
In the first quarter of 2011, photovoltaic installations grew by 66 percent compared to the same quarter in 2010, as reported by the Solar Energy Industries Association. In its first quarter report, “U.S. Solar Market Insight,” the association predicts a slowdown in major European markets and for the industry to pick up in the United States in 2011.
In response to the growth of the solar industry, ImagineSolar, a solar energy training company, is giving electricians staying power by expanding their skill sets and teaching them the ins and outs of solar energy.
Michael Kuhn, president and CEO of ImagineSolar, has been working in the solar industry for a decade. The company was established in 2002 and has been hosting seminars, workshops and training on solar energy since 2003. At first, Kuhn trained city inspectors to understand photovoltaic systems, which change sunlight into electricity, in addition to the electrical wiring they needed to inspect. Kuhn then began a program in local community colleges until he started training electricians in 2009.
“We have incumbent workers and we want to make sure that they have work as more and more of these solar installations are being done throughout the country,” Kuhn said. “This is an opportunity for individuals to upgrade their skill set and be able to work on these new types of projects.”
Toward this end, ImagineSolar hosts the Large Commercial and Utility-Scale Photovoltaic System Design and Installation Workshop, which is aimed at teaching electricians. It’s a blended learning program, which Kuhn calls a “Triple O platform” because the training is performed onsite, online and online live. As of now, it’s hosted in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Arizona, and the company has taught students from countries including Mexico and Lebanon.
A training crew is first sent to an on-site training facility to train 20 to 30 people from a company or government organization. The initial two days of on-site training consists of 16 hours of hands-on training with demonstrations on how to work with photovoltaic systems, which have a higher voltage than regular electric wiring. With electricians, Kuhn said, the hands-on component is critical and can’t be duplicated by offering an online course alone. After the live session, students then go on to an online course that has weekly assignments and quizzes. From there, the students are brought back to their instructors live via two-way video from the Austin, Texas-based ImagineSolar Training Center.
“I can have several instructors in the room as a team and so we conduct this online live training,” Kuhn said. “That’s a supplement to the online training that they’re doing. That’s where you’ve got your blended training delivery model that includes on-site training to start with, then transitions them to the online course, but during that online course we actually come back to them live.”
Kuhn said doing all this keeps the momentum of training going so students can continue to move through the material smoothly.
“We can give them better service because we’re there to directly answer questions to help them with any further explanation they may need [of] concepts that they’re studying through our online section,” Kuhn said. “Also we can direct them to further exercises while we’re there with them.”
According to Kuhn, sometimes via this training electricians are introduced to their first online experience. Some attend and don’t have email, but are soon set up with an account.
“What we do when we’re on-site is actually work with each individual, training them on just how to access and experience online training,” Kuhn said.
For each workshop, a training coordinator is chosen from the students. This person is responsible for being the “hands and eyes on the ground” so that during live sessions, the classroom is set up properly.
Kuhn said electricians take to the material well considering their backgrounds and how they originally learned their skills, typically through apprenticeship. The highly-skilled students come in with high aptitude.
“This is trades training and they know their trade,” Kuhn said, adding that the electricians know the National Electric Code, the standard for safe electrical installations, but in approaching solar must learn a different section of that code — Article 690, which details the safety standards of photovoltaic systems.
“The systems work very differently than anything they have experienced previously because they work from the sun,” Kuhn said. “The sun is variable. The sun is different depending on your location. It’s different on a cloudy day than it is on a sunny day. [With] photovoltaic systems, the amount of performance is totally dependent on what is happening with the solar resource and what’s happening in terms of the temperature extremes.”
The overall learning experience here has proven successful at establishing connections with students, Kuhn said.
“You build a relationship with them that endures as a transition to the online training and we come back to them for the online live piece,” Kuhn said. “If you’re just doing an online course you don’t have that.”
Natalie Morera is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at nmorera@CLOmedia.com.