The sirens are cut as the truck rolls up to an involved structure fire. If you’re a firefighter first on the scene, you don’t have time to pause before you put everything you know into action.
Once it’s established the house is empty, you advance toward the billowing smoke. Then the entire squad stops dead in their tracks. There are solar panels on the roof that you couldn’t see from the front. You rely on your recent training; no time is wasted as power to the home and the solar equipment is safely shut down (to the extent possible). Now you can confidently approach the roof.
Without effective solar education and training, this scenario might not play out the same way in another neighborhood, where first responders didn’t have the knowledge and confidence to respond without skipping a beat.
In many areas of the country, firefighters are becoming better prepared for emergencies where solar technology is present. They’re alleviating their safety concerns. They’re able to swiftly identify and shut down even less-visible solar systems. They know where they can operate safely with a solar-energized system in play, as well as when they can or can’t create a rooftop escape route for heat and smoke. New in-person and interactive online training courses are helping firefighters and other first responders become solar smarter. And with increased knowledge and a plan, they can approach and act automatically, as they do for other structural emergencies.
“PV systems are becoming more prevalent in our communities, and firefighters need to understand how to safely work around them,” says Derek Alkonis of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Precisely. Homeowners across the U.S. are increasingly adopting solar, so more firefighters are coming into contact with solar installations every day. “The primary message here is clear,” says Laure-Jeanne Davignon, director of workforce development for the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), who is working in partnership with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) to develop and offer training. “Nobody wants first responders to wait for an emergency to learn the answers to important questions about solar technologies.”
Professionals involved in the solar industry are in a unique position to help. “Pass the word along,” says Davignon. “Be sure first responders in your area know they can take an online PV safety course specifically for firefighters, and it’s free, so municipal and volunteer fire companies of all sizes and budgets have the opportunity to learn how to more confidently, safely and effectively operate around solar-equipped structures.”
This training isn’t a commercial venture, she explains. It was designed by experts from the solar industry and the fire service, taught by active career firefighters, supported by the IAFF and the National Association of State Fire Marshals, and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot Initiative. Most importantly, video-simulated environments allow first responders to practice the skills they’ve learned before they pull up to a PV-powered structure.
Other professionals are increasingly affected by the U.S. solar boom, as well. Within the construction industry alone are builders and developers, electricians and plumbers, and roofers and architects (and the local code officials who inspect all of their work). And the list is growing to include a host of seemingly unrelated industries, such as realtors, appraisers, financial loan officers, and commercial and residential building maintenance managers.
Typically, what they need to understand goes beyond the basic benefits of solar technologies, including the value solar brings to a property, residents and a community. Knowledge of on-site shared solar options and the often-complex rate design and interconnection policies that differ by state and utility may be important to their work, in addition to complementary technologies, such as energy storage.
While some professional associations are beginning to tackle this knowledge need by integrating solar into their professional education, help is often a product of nationally funded education and training initiatives for so-called “allied” solar professions. The DOE’s Solar Training and Education for Professionals (STEP) project, for example, provides help.
Real estate offers a good illustration. Research on single-family residences shows that customer-owned PV systems provide similar benefits to home sales as other upgrades – think new kitchen. Yet, most real estate education classes still don’t even touch on solar energy.
According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, solar-powered homes result in a higher sales price, reflective of the value of the solar array, and they spend less time up for sale on the market. Real estate agents and appraisers need to understand how to accurately value solar in the marketplace so they can leverage it in marketing for resale or for refinancing.
Through the STEP project, solar education is reaching an increasing number of allied professionals through industry-specific educational forums and Web-based continuing education courses, and the conversation is beginning to trend in industry blogs and through other social media channels.
Similar inroads are being made with code officials, architects, engineers and other building design professionals so that they’re better equipped to facilitate effective solar-ready buildings.
Furthermore, managers of multi-tenant residential and commercial buildings, building maintenance managers and, frequently, homeowners association managers are also faced with decisions about investing in solar.
“Raising awareness among multifamily residential housing stakeholders about the opportunity and value of solar is critical to expanding consumer access to solar energy, particularly to removing barriers for this underserved market,” says IREC Regulatory Director Sara Baldwin Auck.
Organizations like the Center for Sustainable Energy, IREC and the California Solar Energy Industries Association are jumping in. They’re working to enable multifamily property owners and managers in California with information and assistance they need to make smarter solar decisions. Through a project supported by the DOE’s Energy Solar Market Pathways Initiative, the goal is to take advantage of California’s existing virtual net metering tariff, which allows for a multi-metered, multi-tenant property to install a single solar electric system that can be shared by multiple on-site tenants and common load utility accounts, resulting in direct, on-bill savings.
To help more multifamily solar projects come to life, the team is partnered with EnergySage on the development of an online multifamily portal to connect multifamily building owners and residents with interested solar contractors. And new online resources include these toolkits for apartment and condo owners and managers, as well as for contractors.
The National Apartment Association (NAA), recognizing increased interest from its members (more than 73,000 members, operating 9 million apartment units globally), is very visibly supporting solar as part of an industry trend toward sustainability.
“Our members are moving forward with growing interest in solar, especially with more access available through financing and contracting opportunities in the last few years,” says Holly Charlesworth, NAA manager of government affairs. “With growing use of solar in our members’ communities, it’s starting to make financial sense for these building owners, with the cost of on-site and community solar going down.”
Solar has been on the NAA radar for some time. Now the organization is actively highlighting the success stories of its members and developing new resources to educate them, such as an upcoming guide that will identify various paths for apartment buildings to go solar. The NAA Education Institute helps the industry workforce keep up with the latest industry trends (including renewable energy and energy efficiency) through online and classroom training and credentialing.
The development of micro-credentials is one cutting-edge path IREC is leading that may soon play a key role in the training and validation of solar skills within other professions. A good example is the NAA Education Institute, which is working with IREC to develop an energy-efficiency
micro-credential for apartment maintenance professionals.
“Today, we see emerging as a pressing priority quality third-party validation of specialty skills both for clean energy allied professionals whose jobs ‘touch’ solar in some way and for add-on skills for full-scope credentials that currently exist within the clean energy professions,” according to Anna Sullivan, associate director of IREC’s credentialing program.
No matter if it’s a single-family dwelling or a large shared multi-tenant project, at the core of any solar installation are the permits and approvals necessary to complete the array, flip the switch and start generating clean energy. As permitting authorities encounter higher volumes of solar permit applications, keeping the process moving efficiently is as important for them as it is for the solar industry.
“With so many jurisdictions involved, consistency and standardization are among the keys to driving down the installed cost of solar and other renewable energy,” says IREC’s Auck.
With no standardized permitting process in the country, and some 25,000 jurisdictions, the inspection and permitting process is a huge challenge to improve. Although PV systems can be as straightforward as many of the electrical systems code officials review or inspect, the technology is advancing at lightning speed, new electrical codes are pertinent, and best practices are constantly evolving. Keeping up is critical, as is improving the plan review process to help authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) complete a solar plan review as effectively and efficiently as other plans. This is particularly important because many local inspectors wear multiple inspection hats.
“One of the things most valuable for a contractor is building confidence with an inspector so they feel you know and follow the applicable codes and standards,” says Don Hughes, a 20+ year code official with Santa Clara County, Calif., who was involved with the development of the first PV online training course (PVOT) designed for code officials just five years ago.
“PV online training is an excellent source for PV installers, as well as code officials and inspectors; they can all be participants in speeding up the permitting process while never compromising safety or the effectiveness of an installation,” adds Joe Sarubbi, who directed the development of the original PVOT and its most recent update for IREC and the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI). “It is now in code compliance with the 2008, 2011 and 2014 versions of the National Electrical Code and includes a new lesson covering the 2012 International Fire Code, with building and fire safety related to residential PV.”
New in-person code courses are also available to build on what code officials already know – with the IAEI, International Code Council and NABCEP all offering continuing education units. The goal is to introduce solar PV concepts in a way that demystifies the technology.
Once solar is installed and operational, the question of value comes back to a final group of professionals, appraisers, and the lenders and underwriters who review their appraisal reports.
“Solar brings new appraiser challenges to learn more about electricity, how it is priced, how much the solar PV costs, how much it produces, how long it lasts, and how to find solar data,” explains Adomatis Appraisal Service’s Sandy Adomatis, SRA, who develops and teaches solar courses for appraisers, for the Appraisal Institute and, most recently, for a new course launching in September that includes emerging technologies such as energy storage.
One of the biggest challenges for appraisers is getting the complete information they need – and in a consistent way – so they can properly compare and evaluate properties with installed solar.
“MLS is the best database residential appraisers have, and rarely does the listing provide sufficient detail of solar to allow an appraiser to find sales that are comparable,” according to Adomatis. To complicate the problem, often homeowners don’t have all of the details about a system, particularly if it is older or was installed before they owned the home.
As the challenges evolve, solutions are surfacing. For example, Berkeley Lab suggests public access to solar data could be through a central data repository, which would help resolve complications to the valuation of a property by identifying solar PV characteristics by address.
In the meantime, the Appraisal Institute just updated its AI Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum, which now has a page dedicated to solar PV. “If property owners and solar installers completed this solar page and made it available to the appraiser and lender at loan application, it would make a big difference in the accuracy of the appraised value,” says Adomatis.
Ruth Fein Revell is a freelance writer based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who also manages communications for the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, a national independent organization advancing fact-based clean energy regulatory policy and quality workforce development for 35 years.