Class puts solar power in hands of pros

Florida Keys Community College is breaking new ground with one of its latest offerings, a 40-hour course on installing solar power systems.

The noncredit course, which was offered in the fall and will be offered again starting in February, is taught by Doug Gregory of the University of Florida/Monroe County Extension Service.

The college is the first in the state to offer a photovoltaic installation course approved by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, and it’s one of only a few offering such a course at all.

As word of the class spread, Cathy Torres, director of Workforce Development and Community Outreach for FKCC, said she’s gotten calls from out-of-state colleges looking for someone to teach a similar course at their campuses.

Gregory approached the college with the idea a few months ago, after taking a train-the-trainer course at the Florida Solar Energy Center. He put together a class outline, and Torres said the college was impressed with his presentation.

“I was very excited about it,” Torres said. “It was a new way of doing things.”

Gregory says it was a big commitment for the college, which supplied more than $8,000 worth of equipment for a course taught by a then-untested instructor.

Torres said it was a successful experiment, one the college will happily repeat. She’s eventually hoping a similar course can be offered at the Marathon and Coral Shores campuses. She said the college would love to see subsequent classes install photovoltaic systems that the school could tap for power.

The PV course costs about $500, including the book and lab fees. Torres said she knows that’s a lot of money in today’s economy, so she’s looking for ways to make the class count even more, perhaps as continuing education credit for electricians and contractors.

Once the 40-hour course is completed, participants can opt to take the entry-level NABCEP certification exam.

Gregory said NABCEP formed several years ago increase the professionalism in the growing solar power industry. It’s a voluntary program designed to give installers more credibility and consumers peace of mind.

Keyswide environmental nonprofit Green Living & Energy Education has offered photovoltaic classes as part of its annual expo for several years, Gregory said, but those were more general classes. He wanted to see something in-depth, geared for professionals, that would give them the knowledge needed to do — or oversee — quality installations.

“Experience brings confidence,” he said.

After reaching record heights in summer, the bottom has since fallen out of the oil market, which has tempered what was becoming an urgent cry for alternative energy sources of all kinds. Still, interest in solar power has been steadily growing.

Florida is going ahead with requiring utilities to get some of their power from alternative sources such as solar, and both Keys utilities allow customers with solar panels to sell power — what’s known as net-metering — back to them.

Fifteen people took the fall class, while another 20 put their names on a waiting list. A second class, with room for 25 students, starts Feb. 3 at FKCC’s Key West campus.

Gregory said he designed the course using the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee textbook on photovoltaic systems, and supplemented it with material from the Florida Solar Energy Center curriculum and other sources.

The four-week class met for four hours two nights a week, and then the students gathered in the college’s marine propulsion lab one Saturday for their final lab session.

The goal was to put together a functioning photovoltaic system from start to finish, including installing panels on a “roof” furnished by FKCC’s Mark Woods. And a laboratory it was, with electricians and contractors from different companies working cooperatively to find solutions. Gregory said they had a working system in less than eight hours.

For Key West electrician Kristof Madro, taking the class was a natural followup to the GLEE Expo class he took last year.

“I was planning to start doing something with [solar power],” Madro said, “but I wanted to learn more about it.”

And the knowledge is the key, Gregory and Madro said. Electricians are already able to install systems, but Madro said the class gave him necessary information. For instance, there’s a science in where and how to place panels to maximize efficiency; when even a passing cloud cuts a panel’s output, shade’s a killer.

“I wanted to collect the knowledge so I can give people the correct information and make them more comfortable,” Madro said. “People really don’t know anything about it. If you have the knowledge, you can explain.”

Madro said he’s had a few customers ask about installing PV systems, but sticker shock quickly sets in when he gives them a rough estimate. Solar power systems aren’t cheap — they can run $10,000 and up, depending on the size and kind of system — and each customer has said they’d have to figure out how to finance it.

Some students were less concerned with learning how to do it themselves than they were just learning how it should be done by others.

That’s why Gerald Albertson was there. A building official for the village of Islamorada, Albertson took the course because he wanted to know what to look for on the job. While far from common, photovoltaic systems are slowly growing in number throughout the Keys.

“The only thing I didn’t like was the drive home at night,” Albertson said of the course experience. The class met from 6 to 10 p.m. Monday and Wednesday in Key West.

“I’ve been involved in the electricity business since 1969,” Albertson said, “but I’d never dealt with an inverter, a charge controller, photovoltaic cells… It was phenomenal for me.”