Attendees at first course (above). Back Row: David Bartley, Rick Potter, Lindsay Hart, Bob McDonald Stephen Garrett, Ray Prowse, Ron Tito, Roger Bunyan. Front Row: Tony Egan, Peter Browne, Stephen Ingrouille, Geoff Stapleton

Words by Ray Prowse, first executive director of SEIAA, and Geoff Stapleton, Director Global Sustainable Energy Solutions (GSES)

 

The history of the industry is often lost on industry participants as an industry matured. As the Clean Energy Council welcomed their 5000th Accredited Installer this month, GSES looks back at the history of training and accreditations in Australia and the people who helped to build it.

Appropriate Technology Retailers Association of Australia (ATRAA) and the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA).

Prior to 1990, some of the people who were in the solar industry would meet one weekend in August every year to discuss what was happening in the fledgling industry. The group called the meeting in the name of an association, Appropriate Technology Retailers Association of Australia (ATRAA), which was not formally registered at that point in time.

At the ATRAA meeting held in 1990 in Adelaide, those present (about 20 people) decided it was time to investigate the formation of a formal industry association. During the following months it was found that there was an existing Solar Energy Industry Association of Australia (SEIAA) based in Melbourne, which mainly consisted of solar water and pool heating members. A representative of the SEIAA spoke at the 1991 ATRAA meeting and slowly the SEIAA began to grow. The first president of the new SEIAA was Bob Cooper.

Development of training and accreditation

One of the issues of concern at the time was that stand-alone PV systems being installed came with promises which could not be delivered. Many industry players had stories of people complaining that their systems were not working properly. Some of these complaints were due to poor installation and poor equipment, but most were due to poor design. As an example, a system that could only meet a daily energy usage of 1-2kWh was being sold to customers as being able to meet much higher energy demand. There was a concern that overselling of solar systems would damage the relatively young industry.

At the 1992 ATRAA meeting held in Murwillumbah it was reported that there had been one death on a system as a result of unsafe self-installed system and there had been a fire in a system on a bus. It was decided that the industry needs to develop a training course and introduce an accreditation program for designers and installers. Tony Egan (Goulburn), Ron Tito (Michelago), Bob McDonald (Braidwood) and Geoff Stapleton (Ulladulla) were nominated to form the training course development committee as they were located relatively close to each other.

Fortunately, in September 1992, the Federal Department of Primary Industry and Energy (DPIE) announced $2 million for the promotion of stand-alone power systems. The SEIAA executive committee submitted a successful application to DPIE to obtain financial support to hire a person who could develop the training course and accreditation program. Ray Prowse, having a background of delivering training at TAFE, was selected from the resultant selection process. He started work in early 1993 with the official title of Executive Director of the SEIAA.

In the 1980s a Certificate IV course in renewable energy had been developed. Although some TAFEs had commenced offering the Certificate IV in Renewable Energy, the course was not suitable for the people already working in the industry. The courses at the time were only offered at some TAFE facilities in capital cities and many in the industry were not located near those training centres. Existing solar industry members also could not afford the 900 plus hours required to do the certificate course. Hence the initial course was primarily aimed at those who were already in the industry.

Initial Training Course

Over the coming months Prowse developed a training course with the support of people such as Richard Collins, Lindsay Hart, Stephen Ingrouille, Rick Potter, Peter Pedals, Sandy Pulsford, Geoff Stapleton, Geoff Moore, Peter Barrett and Ron Tito. A pilot course was conducted after the ATRAA conference in Bega in 1993. The course was attended by a number of people from the advisory committee to provide feedback. The attendees were the first people who then applied for accreditation.

The course was initially delivered face-to-face in selected locations where there were sufficient participants to fill a classroom of 15 – 20 people. Prowse travelled to deliver the course, using local venues, and presented the course over three days. The course was always Friday, Saturday and Sunday, because it took participants away from their weekday businesses for less time. The cost of the course was typically $300 but varied slightly due to venue costs in some locations. Industry members in the locality of the course made hardware available for use in the course (batteries, modules etc.). A small portable system hub was manufactured and transported for use in the course presentation. The hub was around the size of a meter box and system components were connected into it to demonstrate the ways components were wired together. The initial uptake of accreditation was slow but demand was stimulated when accreditation became a condition of eligibility for industry subsidies and grants.

As uptake increased it became apparent that there was a need to offer a correspondence course. The reasons were:

  1. difficulty in scheduling classroom courses in regional and remote areas, and
  2. Too much time was being spent in the classroom course going over theory and more time needed to be spent on practical competencies

A need to offer alternate pathways to accreditation was also identified. Those who had been installing systems for some time were given the opportunity to demonstrate their competence by submitting case study reports of at least three systems that they had designed and installed. They also had to complete an examination that was based on the three-day course. This pathway was called “grandfathering” or “prior experience”.

If applicants could not gain accreditation through prior experience, they had to complete both the correspondence course and the three-day practical course. The applicant would be sent a correspondence course which covered the theory of Stand-alone power systems. Participants could then complete the practical component by attending course presented by the industry association. Sending the correspondence course out before the practical course enabled more time to be spent on practical activities during the three days.

To assist in the presentation of the practical course, the association gained further funding from DPIE to fabricate a portable training module. This was a box approximately 2m x 1.2m x 1.2m which could be freighted to the site of a course. The box dismantled into the floor, walls and roof of a building and was fitted with state of the art equipment (inverters, regulators, system controller, batteries and modules). Students could make and break the system as many times as was necessary and they developed greater practical skills as a result.

Relationship between Training and Accreditation.

Accreditation has always been awarded in two stages –provisional and full. When training first commenced it was primarily aimed at improving the competencies of people already working in the industry. Provisional accreditation was awarded on completion of the three-day course and successful completion of the exam.

Provisional accreditation recognised the ability of holders to design and install stand-alone power supply systems. Provisional accreditation lasted for 12 months only, after which time the provisional accreditation holders had to progress to full accreditation by submitting satisfactory case study reports of at least three systems they had designed and installed.

The case study report called for full system specifications including a load analysis and also asked for photos of the system showing evidence of having met all relevant standards. Of particular interest at that time was the installation of the battery bank and the photos had to show separation of the battery bank from the rest of the electrical/ electronic equipment, battery safety signs and sufficient ventilation.

As the demand for accreditation continued to increase, the three-day course was used as a mechanism to gain provisional accreditation by people new to the industry. This introduced potential problems due to many applicants not having the practical skills and experience required to design and install systems satisfactorily, but this was tolerated because they had to supply case study reports to progress to full accreditation. This was around the time that the correspondence course was developed so that more time could be spent on practical activities in the three-day course. In the mid-1990s the committee took over administering the accreditation scheme from Prowse due to lack of adequate funds. Richard Collins processed the application with the support of the president Susan Neill.

Development of Guidelines and Standards

In parallel with developing training, the association had a major focus on improving the standards within the industry. The association lobbied Standards Australia for the development of AS4086- Batteries in Stand Alone Power Systems. Prior to this standard being developed, the industry was supposed to abide by the Australian Standard that related to battery banks in buildings. At the time the existing standard was written around Telecom Battery exchanges and similar, and so was irrelevant to a household system. The Association was also key in the development of AS4509-Design and Installation of Stand Alone Power Systems and played an active role on the development of a new renewable energy committee within Standards Australia. Over the following years this committee was instrumental in developing a range of Australian standards for the industry including: AS4777 and AS5033. Often, while these standards were being developed, the industry released best practice guidelines that had to be followed by accredited designers and installers until such time as the final Standard was released.

Training through the TAFE System

Although the initial objective of the accreditation scheme was to ensure that those already in the industry were trained, the SEIAA training course was being used as the main training course for new industry participants to gain accreditation. Many of those involved with the accreditation scheme at the time were concerned that the course was too short for a new entrant; a person becoming an electrician spent 3-4 years in an apprenticeship and undertook up to 900 hours of formal training at a TAFE college, whereas those people entering the solar industry only had to do a relatively short course. Discussions started on how the training required to become accredited could be undertaken through registered training organisations in particular TAFEs.

The endorsement of the Certificate IV Diploma and Advanced Diploma Renewable energy courses being conducted at TAFEs were due to expire in 1999 and the Australian Quality Training Framework (or its equivalent at the time) was now requiring endorsed training courses and packages to be developed within an Industry Technical Advisory Body (ITAB) (note training packages are now managed by Industry Reference Committees).

At the time the Electrotecthnology ITAB was prepared to incorporate renewable energy courses within their training package. While this process was being driven by those within TAFE, members of SEIAA played a role through attendance at some of the initial meetings. In later years, representatives from the association became the chair of the relevant advisory committee.

Formation of SEIA and the STA Committee

During 1998, SEIAA merged with the Sustainable Energy Industry Council of Australia to form the Sustainable Energy Industries Association (Australia) (SEIA), based in Canberra. The Standards Training and Accreditation (STA) Committee was formed within the SEIA, chaired by Mr Allan Barlee. The STA committee oversaw that the developments happening within the National Training packages could allow changing the training requirements for accreditation from the SEIA short course to courses being conducted at the TAFE’s. It was at this time that renewal of accreditation was introduced, the rationale being that to maintain their accreditation, the holders of full accreditation had to demonstrate their on-going involvement in the industry and maintenance of system design and installation competencies. The principal method of demonstrating currency of competencies was the submission of further case study reports of systems designed and installed.

In 1998, the Australian Government formed the Australian Greenhouse Office (AGO) and a number of initiatives were planned for the support of the renewable energy industry: the PV Rebate Program (PVRP) and Remote Renewable Power Generation Program (RRPGP) which were due to start in 2000. The AGO wanted to work closely with the industry and to have the programs linked with the accreditation program. While some states had already introduced an incentive program for stand-alone systems that required that the systems to be designed and installed by an accredited person, this was to be the first national program to be linked with an accreditation program.

As part of this approach, the AGO funded the appointment of a full-time person to administer the scheme for the SEIA. Prowse returned to SEIA to administer the scheme and became the SEIA representative on the training committee within the Electrotechnology ITAB. Over the coming years Mr Prowse and the STA committee identified the modules that became the initial pathways for accreditation. In late 2001, once the STA committee was confident that training was readily available through TAFEs and through distance learning, it announced that the new pathways for accreditation would start in 2002. The industry was given 12 months warning for those already in the industry so they could become accredited using the short course. Once this pathway was introduced the training had effectively become mainstream and equivalent in hours to other trades. If the person were not an electrician, they would have to undertake 620 hours of training before they could apply for provisional accreditation.

In 2002 the SEIA Merged with Ecogeneration Association to become the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE). The next few years saw significant growth in the fledgling industry under the direction of the full time executive officer Ric Brazale. Within the BCSE, more staff were appointed to help administer the scheme. Through BCSE and the STA committee the industry continued playing an active role in industry development.

Today

The industry accreditation is administered by the Clean Energy Council, which was formed in 2007 when BCSE merged with the Wind Association. The types of accreditations available are:

  • Design Stand Alone Power Systems
  • Install Stand Alone Power Systems
  • Design and Install Stand Alone Power Systems
  • Design Grid Connected PV Systems
  • Install Grid Connected PV Systems.
  • Design and Install Grid Connected PV Systems

There are also endorsements for those who work with wind, hybrids, micro-hydro systems and grid connect with battery storage, which require successfully completing the appropriate Unit of Competence at a RTO.

GSES offers training courses for qualified individuals to obtain a design, install, or design and install accreditation in Grid Connected PV Systems and to upgrade to Grid Connected PV with Battery Storage endorsements: see here for more details. GSES will also be offering training courses for Stand Alone Power Systems in the near future.

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