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How competent are renewable energy installers?

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 23 August 2011 at 10:36 am

Because I have been immersed in all things renewable energy for the past three years, I had almost forgotten just how young the industry still is. Reading the Microgeneration Strategy bought home to me that much of the infrastructure that you kind of assume is in place, just isn't yet.

Training is one of the areas where this really shows. Until very recently there have not been any competence-based training courses available for people installing renewable energy.

Of course this doesn’t mean that people putting solar panels on roofs are incompetent, just that their competence hasn't been assessed in a way that ticks the right boxes. “There’s lots of very good training,” says Nigel Hollett, the head of environmenal technologies at Summit Skills who is in charge of developing the strategy for training in environmental technologies. “There are also small amounts of absolute junk training.”

That’s all about to change. New legislation will come in next year (2012) to meet the requirements of an EU directive on individual competence for installing renewable energy systems. This states that all individual installers will be assessed on both product knowledge and their practical installation skills. They will have to renew their competence on a regular basis.

Given the speed with which the products and sector are developing, Rob Wellman, development manager at the National Skills Academy for Environmental Technologies anticipates that it’s likely that they will have continuing professional development assessments every three years.

At the moment, the only reassurance a customer has about installer competence is via a company’s membership of the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS). Its system of measuring technical competence is currently pretty light touch.

Action 6 of the Microgeneration Strategy requires the MCS to formally include competence into the microgeneration installation standards as soon as possible (that might be as early as November).

The National Skills Academy is taking the lead on training provision in England (the devolved nations are also working developing competence-based schemes). It has set up a network of training hubs around England, each with a range of trainer members. Trainees are expected to come with an existing trade, such as plumber or electrician, and build the additional skills so that they can connect into an existing system and, if necessary alter it, to fit the new technology.

There will be a central register online, similar to the Gas Safe one, where employers and customers can check whether an individual is competent.

Courses are already available for solar PV, solar thermal, heat pumps and rainwater harvesting. The ones for mini-wind, biomass, micro-hydro, CHP and design and specification are under development. Currently, the only competence-based courses are those accredited by City and Guilds and EAL. Details of accredited trainers are on the Skills Academy Website.

The National Skills Academy for Environmental Technologies aims to train 28,000 people this year, and 48,000 next year. Once the legislation is in place all existing installers will need to be assessed to demonstrate their competence.

If the renewable energy industry is going to grow and thrive, it’s really important to build consumer confidence. Having well skilled people doing the job is vital to this. The varied results of the field trial of heat pumps done by the Energy Saving Trust is just one example of why it’s so fundamental to success. Installers must be able to do a good job in the design and specification, as well as the installation of a system, and be able to teach their customers how to use it.

Of course it’s not just the renewable energy sector that needs these standards. It’s also important in all the additional areas covered under the Green Deal, and that there’s real understanding of how all the measures work together. “There’s a lot of discussion about how to map across between different sectors as soon as possible,” says Hollett.

“Another level of bureaucracy for the Green Deal sends shivers through me. There will be a Kitemark, and we want to make sure it doesn’t become extra bureaucracy. A lot of people don’t like MCS, but MCS is getting better. If they start saying there must be another certification scheme – it’s the last thing they want.” Let's hope it's streamlined, simple, and effective.

While you can't currently check whether your installer is on the register, you can check to see what past customers have to say about them in the YouGen directory.

Photo by Oregon DOT

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