- Independent Ratings Spur “Huge Improvement” in Solar Water Heaters
- A Little Help From Our Friends
- Zero to 3 Million: Rising Above Rubble of California's Housing Crisis
- Show Us What You've Got!
- Flaunt Those Hard Earned Credentials
Back in the '70s, when Oregon’s residential tax credit for renewable energy systems began, many solar water heating systems didn't live up to expectations. Today, the quality of most of the systems available and their installations are so significantly improved, consumers who know what to look for can have confidence in their dependability and benefit from energy saving results. What prompted changes in this industry had a lot to do with third-party quality ratings.
Rob Del Mar is a field energy analyst for Oregon's State Department of Energy, and he was with the Energy Trust of Oregon before joining the state DOE. “Many solar water heating systems installed back then didn’t perform,” says Del Mar. “Reliability was a big issue.”
But in 2007, the scenario changed for residents in Oregon. To get the state's tax credit, it was no longer enough to put a solar water heating system in place. According to new language for tax credit eligibility, systems now had to have SRCC OG-300 certification. Then in 2008, SRCC OG-100 and OG-300 were recognized as product standards by the Oregon State Plumbing Board.That's from the Solar Rating & Certification Corporation, an independent, third-party organization that provides ratings for quality assurance.
“As a result,” according to Del Mar, “We've seen a huge improvement in the quality, reliability and performance of solar water heating systems
“State programs love that they can subscribe to SRCC ratings,” explains Eileen Prado, SRCC executive director. “The ratings aren't meant to be a predictor of actual savings, because every household's use is different. What they are meant to do is compare system A to system B, on average, in the same town. In essence, it ensures that a system does what it says it will do – that your investment is going to a system that works.”
Certification makes the administration of an incentive program easier, according to Del Mar, because all of the data is available on the SRCC website. “We rely heavily on the SRCC ratings for quality assurance and calculation of savings estimates,” he says. “We can simply plug in a particular system and city of use, then based on that rating, it helps us determine what incentive to pay.”
Prado uses the analogy of purchasing a new car. You can compare gas mileage from one car to another.
She explains: Since the solar collector is roof mounted, there are so many factors that affect its results. How many times and what time of day a family showers matters, as does the geographic area of its use. Ratings are based on averages, taking into account the climate, latitude/longitude, angle of the sun, etc. If the system is installed on the north side of a house under a large tree, the actual benefits realized naturally won't reach the average ratings.
“When we began to publish data, the industry began to raise the bar on quality and installation,” adds Prado. The product quality really began to improve, because it compares competitors – which continues to serve consumers well.”
How are ratings determined and why are they reliable?
Industry comes to the SRCC with a full system design, which goes much further than just a collector. It must include a back-up system. Is it electric or gas? What type of water tank is used? SRCC reviews not only the system hardware, but also the manuals. Are they clear enough for proper installation?
“Installation and owner manuals are critical to quality results,” says Prado. “Roofers don't know about plumbing or electric. Plumbers don't know about roofs or positioning of the sun.”
Systems are then tested, exposed to weather, freeze tests, and other conditions and tailored to individual geographic areas. The data from these reports is then extrapolated into ratings.
The IRS energy tax credit regulates that a solar water heating system must meet the SRCC OG100 standard. Some states, such as Oregon, have gone farther, requiring systems meet the tougher 0G300 standard to be eligible for a tax credit.
Hundreds of Small Wind Turbine Options Makes Credible Certification Critical
New York State dairy farmer Don Partridge was so pleased with the performance of his two wind turbines he decided to add a third to supply all his remaining electric needs. His investment in clean, renewable energy paid off. Because the Bergey Excel 10 model he chose is certified, Partridge was able to fund nearly the entire purchase and installation with state and federal incentives.
Several states, including his home state of New York, offer grants, rebates and other funding for installing eligible certified small and medium wind turbines. As the market for on-site wind generation continues to grow and new turbine models come on the market, certification is helping to ensure consumer and environmental safety, economy, function, performance and durability.
The last decade has seen an unprecedented global increase in demand for distributed wind systems. Dozens of new and “newly improved” small wind turbine models are available to U.S. consumers from both domestic and foreign manufacturers. Standards for wind turbine manufacturers regarding performance, acoustic and safety help consumers evaluate the hundreds of options available and identify quality products.
The primary public agency that helped Partridge through the process of choosing and installing a certified turbine was the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which works to help the state meet its energy goals of reducing consumption, promoting the use of renewables and protecting the environment.
“Certification is an important piece of the puzzle, an important starting point to determine which turbines should be eligible for funding,” noted Mark Mayhew, NYSERDA project manager. “There are many installations in New York of non-certified turbines where the production that the owner was promised has not panned out. Having a quality installer who can properly site a wind turbine is also important.”
Since NYSERDA bases its incentive on the expected output of the turbine at the proposed site, he explained, “it’s comforting to know that the projected output is based on a power curve that was created by an independent body.”
Currently, two accredited U.S. certifications organizations, the Small Wind Certification Council (SWCC) and Intertek issue certificates to qualified small wind turbines. Certification confirms that a turbine has been tested and designed according to the requirements of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Standard. Additionally, the Interstate Turbine Advisory Council (ITAC) maintains a “Unified List” of turbines that have been certified, have been fully vetted by ITAC and meet ITAC’s warranty and business performance criteria.
Certification gives funding agencies and utilities confidence that distributed wind turbines installed with public assistance have been tested for safety, function, performance and durability, and that they meet agreed upon standards. And certification can help prevent unethical marketing and false claims, thereby ensuring consumer protection and industry credibility.
“Certification helps consumers distinguish between the good, the bad, and the untested wind turbines on the market and helps consumers accurately compare the wide variety of products available,” explained SWCC Executive Director Larry Sherwood.
Mayhew points out that wind turbine certification requirements should be designed carefully so they are not an impediment to new players entering the marketplace, allowing for growth while maintaining integrity. “It is easy to set the bar so high that no one can clear it,” he explained. “In just a few short years, I’ve seen tremendous change in the distributed wind industry. Certification has certainly helped mature the industry, but manufacturers must also realize that they have to be in it for the long haul.As distributed wind energy grows, the importance of certification will also grow.”
With the progress that’s been made in certifying small wind turbines, consumers can now use certification ratings as criteria for selecting a wind turbine model that is right for their needs. With incentive programs like NYSERDA’s and others listed on SWCC’s website, a certified wind turbine can be a much more reliable, economical and safe investment.
Quality Credentials Help Homebuilder's Shift to home performance
Selling home-performance improvements can be a challenge even in strong housing markets. With little visible "bling" to show the neighbors, and energy savings that may take months or years to be significant, the likes of energy assessments, duct-sealing and attic insulation remain a dubious and decidedly unglamorous investment in the minds of most homeowners.
So how is it that a longtime builder of new homes has grown its home-performance revenues to $3 million in less than three years – in one of the most depressed housing markets in the country?
In part by emphasizing comfort instead of energy savings. In part by leveraging the existing strengths of the company and its region – namely, a brand the community has known for 45 years – and regional utility programs providing rebates to homeowners who invest in energy-saving projects.
But that isn't the whole answer. This story is also about getting the right training, education and quality credentials to successfully market the company's new direction.
"Everybody wants to save money, but we're pretty adamant about emphasizing comfort," said Mark Fischer, president of Stockton, Calif.-based Green Home Solutions(GHS) by Grupe and chief financial officer of The Grupe Company, which launched the home-performance company in 2009.
Selling energy savings, as most auditors and contractors know, can be a slippery slope that concludes with disappointed clients. Unless pressed, said Fischer, "we just don't sell savings, because as you know energy efficiency is a mixed bag," depending on occupant behavior and other factors beyond the contractor's control.
Fischer, a former contractor with both an MBA and a CPA, has been with Grupe Homes for about 20 years. In post-project client surveys, he noted, "we get all kinds of comments about savings. Some clients say their utility bills have been cut in half. But we would never promise that."
If anything, "we'll give them our best guess, making sure they know it's an educated guess. And we generally help them think about how long they want to live in their house and how much they'll enjoy it. And what's the return on investment for that?"
It's all in the expectations
Getting in the position of having those conversations with homeowners, of course, can be a hurdle in and of itself. For GHS, which was building 300 to 400 homes a year prior to 2007, a significant advantage was a mailing list of clients and business colleagues that multiplied during the region's overheated housing market of the previous decade.
"We really leveraged our brand recognition," Fischer said. In 2009, he led the startup of GHS after the simultaneous downturn of Grupe's production-housing business and the success of its near-zero-energy Carsten Crossings development. Buoyed by strong sales for this 144-home, mid-priced community, he made his first significant foray into home-performance retrofits through Home Performance with Energy Star (HPwES), achieving whole-house energy savings of 48 percent on a 20-year-old ranch home. Seven Grupe staff took the nine-day HPwES training course.
"When the housing market failed, I was looking around for something to really get my guys into," Fischer said. Retrofits of existing homes require different skills than new construction, so Fischer and his company committed to getting the quality training and credentials they would need. HPwES was just the beginning of ongoing installer training. They received multiple certifications from the Building Performance Institute (BPI).
GHS' dedicated sales staff, or "energy consultants," also take specialized courses, along with receiving sales-specific training through Sandler Training. That sales training has been vital. Though GHS works in much of Central and Northern California, its home base of Stockton is nowhere near emerging from the housing downturn.
With economic realities in mind, GHS' marketing and sales program is far-ranging and consistent, Fischer said, aimed not at overnight success but steady, long-term growth. "It hasn't been hugely profitable by any stretch of the imagination, but we do look at energy efficiency as a long-term space that will be bigger over time."
Key to that growth is taking advantage of available financing, rebate and tax credit programs, to help clients foot the average GHS project cost ($17,000 to $20,000, according to Fischer).
"We see some very exciting financing programs that we think are really going to help our industry," he noted. The GHS website outlines many of these programs and opportunities, which include low-interest 15-year loans, energy efficient mortgages (EEMs) and utility rebates based on modeled or actual results.
Active marketing has included billboards, newspaper ads and direct mailings, but Fischer credits less costly forms of "personal outreach" as more successful and cost-effective, including a "partner incentive" referral program for lenders and real estate agents.
Knowing that real clients can make the most compelling case, GHS also encourages clients to host post-project "Green Up" parties for their friends and neighbors. "We provide beverages and spend maybe 20 minutes presenting how we improved the home," Fischer said. "It's not a big presentation, but we know that referrals are the best way to get business."
Most notably, Fischer and his GHS staff strive to set and achieve or exceed realistic expectations. "It's all about customer service and buyer satisfaction," he said. There are tens of thousands of potential clients within the company's market reach, and many of them are still flinching at the unmet promises, i.e., endlessly escalating home values that lured them to homeownership in the first place. By encouraging homeowners to more thoroughly enjoy the homes they have, and may not be able to sell, Green Home Solutions by Grupe may be leading off another 45-year growth wave.
San Bernardino Breaks the Mold to Set Apart Quality Training
California, like most states, has established strong growth goals for renewable energy and energy efficiency and, as they implement their plans, the need for a well-trained workforce in this sector continues to grow. This is the challenge for the California Workforce Investment Boards (CWIBs).
The number of training programs claiming to prepare workers for jobs in clean energy exploded in the last five years, in response to the broad availability of funding. Many of these training programs were listed on the Eligible Training Provider List, maintained by the State of California Employment Development Department (EDD). This list is used by county WIBs to facilitate the finding of training for workers.
So more workers were “trained” for clean energy jobs, right?
Yes and no. The problem is that during this period, the quality of training programs was mixed and, too often, graduates of programs found that they had not acquired the skills and knowledge they needed to successfully land a clean energy job.
Many programs have closed their doors since 2013 or consolidated with other training, and the general funding for programs has become more restrictive. As a result, there is increased need to identify high quality training for workers – training that provides market-valued skills.
WIBs and workers need to be sure that the training they support has a strong linkage with industry and a curriculum that teaches the knowledge and skills sought by hiring businesses.
In 2013, the San Bernardino County Workforce Investment Board learned about the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) Credentialing Program and recognized it was uniquely focused on market value standards, education and training. They committed to looking for IREC-accredited training programs to help identify quality training that effectively prepares workers for specific jobs.
IREC Training Provider Accreditation includes requirements for training programs to have active engagement with industry to ensure their students are trained for jobs that exist in their market. There is also a requirement for the curriculum to be based on a current industry-validated Job Task Analysis (JTA), further linking knowledge and skills with industry needs.
Understanding this value, the San Bernardino County WIB put their commitment into action. On their website, where training programs apply for inclusion on the state Eligible Training Provider List, new language was added. Applicants are now asked to answer two questions:
1. Are you an energy efficiency or renewable energy training provider? (Yes or No)
2. If so, are you accredited through the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC)? (Yes or No)
San Bernardino WIB recognized that asking these two voluntary questions would accomplish two goals. They would raise awareness of the availability of IREC accreditation as a mark of quality training, and the answers would provide an additional indicator of the market value of the training. Both of these goals support the drive for training providers to have a strong linkage with industry.
Since implementing these questions, several training providers have asked for more information about IREC accreditation, and training programs that hold IREC Training Program Accreditation have had the opportunity to set themselves apart with that mark of distinction.
The potential value of this information has also been recognized by the California State EDD and similar questions are expected to be added to the state's Eligible Training Provider List application when the website is updated in May 2014.
The emphasis on connecting training with industry needs continues to grow. In December 2013, The California Clean Energy Jobs Act (Proposition 39) was passed, which among other things, is focused on including energy efficiency education in community colleges. The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office has selected five community colleges to receive funding for energy efficiency programs. Included in their goals is the ‘Alignment of skills within a program (or set of courses) to a particular occupation and the needs of the labor market’.
San Bernardino County WIB showed national leadership with its commitment to quality clean energy credentials. It is the first WIB in the U.S. to leverage the recognition of IREC accreditation as an important tool in their toolbox for distinguishing quality training that supports development of a qualified clean energy workforce. And as a result, they are quickly influencing the drive toward market value in the workforce training offered in California.
Solar Company's Commitment to Quality Training Part of Its Brand
Renova Solar is a successful solar installation business located in Palm Desert, CA. Founded in 2006, the company has always focused its operations on ensuring quality service and customer satisfaction. Professional certifications from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) have been an integral part of fulfilling that mission.
For the first few years, the company was a small team of about six. In 2009 and 2010 it began growing and during this time hired its first new employee, a NABCEP Certified PV Installation Professional®. Soon after, more employees became certified by NABCEP and it quickly became an expected practice for new and existing employees to work to obtain these highly regarded credentials.
When Renova Solar recognized that there was a lack of trained solar installers in the region who could come work for the company, it created the Renova Solar Academy by setting up a classroom space in their offices and a hands-on area where students could learn the fundamentals of solar installation. This helped Renova create its own qualified workforce and provided each graduate of the academy with a solid foundation of knowledge for pursuing NABCEP certification.
At Renova, demonstrating your knowledge of solar fundamentals, by achieving a passing score on the NABCEP PV Entry Level Exam, is now expected of all new technicians, installation crew members, and salespeople. Achieving this milestone is also now a requirement for advancement in the company.
Renova supports every employee in the company understanding the basics of solar technology, and certification is encouraged for professionals in all departments. The company founder, Vincent Battaglia, is a NABCEP Certified PV Technical Sales Professional®, and one of the staff engineers is a NABCEP Certified PV Installation Professional.
It was a natural progression for Renova Solar to apply for and become the first NABCEP Accredited PV Installation Company – a program that recognizes their company-wide commitment to quality assurance, workplace safety and qualified personnel.
“This distinction has proved to be a strong competitive advantage and an assurance to our potential customers that although we are local, we are of national caliber,” explains Battaglia. “We integrate this information into all our advertising and even tout it on all of our work vehicles. We’re proud that our company has standards that are nationally recognized and we want to share that so that we can propagate the high level of quality we expect of ourselves throughout the solar industry.
“The best practices that NABCEP encourages and promotes are echoed by our company,” Battaglia adds. “We spend a lot of time with potential customers to ensure that they understand what it means for our people and our company to have NABCEP credentials. It makes a big difference when they understand that the accreditation and certifications demonstrate our commitment to excellence. It helps them trust us for this major purchase. It also provides assurance to our potential field team members that we employ best practices as they relate to safety and installation practices. They know that we’re committed to providing ongoing training so they can improve their knowledge and skills and advance in their careers.”
“Branding is all about differentiating yourself in the mind of the consumer,” says Lea Goodsell, vice president of brand management. “We know that being able to be recognized as a leader in the solar industry nationally because of our NABCEP Company Accreditation makes a huge impact on our local customers. It helps us stand out from our competitors and close deals.”