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Solar training generates interest among electricians

The county's solar industry is generating quite a buzz and San Diego Electrical Training Center is offering electricians the training needed to plug in.

Affiliated with the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), the training center prepares students to become certified electricians through a five-year, 10-semester apprenticeship program. The school offers an optional course in photovoltaic solar panel installations during the final year.

NECA has been offering the class on solar panel installation for the past 10 years, however recently the semester-long course has generated interest with long-time industry professionals, said Patrick Knighton, training director at San Diego Electrical Training Center.

The class is attractive to students not only because it prepares them to enter a growing market, but also because it is very hands-on. Students get real-world practice working on the large solar installation on the school's roof in Kearny Mesa. The installation is elevated much higher than most to allow students to see how it is wired and connected from below.

"We don't believe in sitting students in the classroom for years and then just turning them loose," Knighton said.

Learning about solar panels by completing real installations is effective, said recent graduate Quinn Laudenslager, now a field instructor for the training center's solar class and project manager for San Diego-based company Sullivan Solar. The hands-on element is what originally attracted Laudenslager to the class.

"I felt like it would broaden my horizons more than any other class," Laudenslager said.

While a student in the program, Laudenslager participated in solar installations at the offices of members of Local 569 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. SDETC arranged for union members to purchase solar systems at cost and provided free installation by apprentices. The program gave apprentices an opportunity to learn and provided customers with solar panels at half the typical cost.

While Laudenslager uses the skills he learned in the solar installation class daily, most graduates do a variety of electrical work. The demand for photovoltaic panel installations is growing in the region, but it is not yet large enough to sustain a large specialized workforce. A typical solar installation only requires a couple days of work by two electricians.

"When I train someone to do PV, I don't want to train them to only have a job for a couple of days," Knighton said.

Electricians are presented with unique challenges in installing solar panels. The process is more hazardous than many other types of electrical work, due to the high DC current the panels generate.

There has been a movement toward packaged solar panels, marketed as the cheap and easy way to go solar, Knighton said. Unfortunately these installations are often inefficient and can be hazardous when improperly installed. Inadequate wiring of solar panels can lead to the overheating of wiring and fire hazards.

"People can get seriously hurt," Knighton said. "Somebody's family lives there."

The best way to prevent such hazards is to have a well-trained expert install a system tailored to the family's needs. Over time, such projects are also more efficient in terms of energy generation and cost, Knighton said.

The school takes its training program very seriously and its solar installation education has become a leader in the nation, Knighton said. The school often receives calls from representatives of other institutions looking to duplicate the program's hands-on training.

"Our training center has become a model," Knighton said.

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