A conversation with NABCEP Treasurer, Les Nelson

Les Nelson’s solar thermal resume is nothing short of phenomenal.  Beginning in 1972, building prototype solar collectors for a start-up in Massachusetts, Les’s handiwork can be found in legislation and policy advocacy on numerous solar energy related issues at the state and federal levels.  He’s been a Director of the Solar Energy Industries Association since 1994, and Chair of its Solar Thermal Division since 1998. He’s the Executive Director of the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation, which rates and certifies solar thermal equipment, and NABCEP’s Treasurer and board member. He has been an elected Director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association since 1986, and served as its President for five terms.  Despite his frighteningly busy schedule, he was gracious enough to visit with NABCEP about the solar thermal industry and its future in NABCEP.

NABCEP:  Les, you’ve been in the solar thermal energy business for a very long time. What was the hook that grabbed you in the first place?

LN:  I began working for a start-up company in Massachusetts in 1972, building prototype solar collectors.  It was great work – the engineers would give us two young guys, a design for a solar collector, and we’d build it for them.  The company was testing a new, high efficiency concept at the time, and the oil shortage of the early 1970s hadn’t occurred yet.  Within a couple of years, we did see gas station lines, and solar water heating took off from there.

NABCEP:  What was it like back in the early days of solar thermal installations?  I get the feeling like it was the wild west–no regulations, no standards, no rules.  Were you concerned about the speed of the boom & bust of the industry?

LN:  In the mid to late 1970s, there was no product certification, so systems were generally packaged with all of the components one needed for an install, at least for the most part.  The U.S. government was making large grants for commercial sized solar water heating projects on schools, multi-family housing, retirement homes, etc.  The only check and balance was the system design – however, in many cases, it was done by engineering firms that had never designed any solar system before, let alone one with dozens or even hundreds of collectors.  In many cases, where systems were installed as per the design, they just didn’t work.  So there was a great deal of “field re-engineering,” to get systems to function. Inspections of installed systems were done by local plumbing inspectors who may never have seen a solar system installation before.  We’ve come a long way since then, although we still face the challenge of not having many firms with experience in designing solar thermal systems.

NABCEP:  So here we are in 2009, with a very robust solar industry.  There’s NABCEP to certify solar PV and solar thermal installers, there’s ISPQ for accredited institutions and trainers.  It was a long haul to get here, and it’s a much improved world as a result.  It should be a comfort to the consumer, and to the industry, that it’s becoming more sophisticated and responsive.  Do you think all this progress was a matter of time and talent?

LN:  I think the vision that led to the creation of NABCEP was inspired.  I commend those who worked on conceiving NABCEP, and the other quality assurance mechanisms that are in place to help improve installed quality of solar systems, both PV and solar thermal, such as the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation.  Sooner or later a widely accepted measure of knowledge and experience in solar system design and installation such as NABCEP was bound to emerge, so it’s fortunate that NABCEP recognized the need and moved to establish that measure in the early 2000s.

NABCEP:  It was one of those beautiful marriages of time and inspiration.  But it wasn’t easy at first, launching NABCEP, trying to encourage support from the industry.  Lots has happened, much has been implemented.  But with growth comes challenges.  What’s facing NABCEP?  What are some of the bigger challenges ahead for the organization?

LN:  I believe that sorting out the various offerings of knowledge and proficiency programs that are increasingly coming into existence around the country will be a major effort in years to come.  There is a significant difference between a measure which has been thoroughly vetted by numerous stakeholders, and which has established rock-solid procedural underpinnings, and one that decides it’s a good time to open a referral service or training facility.  There are a number of very good suppliers of these types of products in the US, but not all programs are well grounded.  Another challenge is sorting out just who will have the right to install solar systems of all types in various jurisdictions around the US.

NABCEP:  While the current universe of NABCEP-certified solar thermal installers is small–less than 100 nationally–the demand for them is great, and growing. Since the first NABCEP solar thermal exam was administered in 2006, NABCEP has heard that the certification process is too rigorous, too difficult.  Yet we all demand that solar installers–whether PV or solar thermal–are qualified.  How does NABCEP balance the demands of certification with the needs of qualified installers?

LN:  Installers are developed over time, not created whole.  The NABCEP process ensures that a candidate for certification has spent adequate time actually installing systems and has successfully completed a rigorous training program.  NABCEP sets the bar high to ensure that only qualified individuals are eligible to sit for our exams.  Even those individuals who enter the solar industry from ‘traditional’ electrical or plumbing trade careers require a high degree of specialized knowledge, much of which is not part of their core training. NABCEP certification validates that an individual has attained that knowledge and training and has been able to pass a difficult exam which tests for specialized knowledge required of solar installers.

NABEP:  Do you think in the nearly six years of NABCEP’s existence and work, that the public has become aware of NABCEP and understands and appreciates the enormous value of certification?

LN:  I believe that NABCEP has made good progress in this regard, in large part due to the industry members who have passed the NABCEP examination and make sure to mention that credential to their prospective customers.  It’s very difficult (and expensive) for NABCEP to get the word out to the public on its own, but as more and more Certificants are added, NABCEP enjoys the benefits of enthusiastic, country-wide promoters of certification.

NABCEP:  What do you want to see NABCEP accomplish in the short and long term?

LN:  I’d like to see incentive programs for solar technologies structured in such a way as to reward installers of solar systems with NABCEP Certification by increasing the incentive when the installer is certified.  This type of structure would reward the advanced experience and knowledge level of NABCEP Certificants, while preserving the voluntary nature of NABCEP Certification.  Longer term, unfortunately, the issue of the “right to install” solar needs to be resolved in a manner which is generally amenable to all involved in the solar industry.