Installer’s Corner: Vicki McAninch, Meridian Solar, Austin, Texas

Vicki McAninch

Vicki McAninch

Vicki McAninch is a remarkable wearer of many hats.  At Meridian Solar, she’s answered phones, invoiced clients, designed and installed PV systems for residential and commercial clients.  She’s technically brilliant: graduating from Baylor University in 2000 with a BS in Engineering with electronic and computer emphases.  She’s a mom with two daughters, and is currently the only female NABCEP-certified PV installer in Texas.  I was delighted to catch up with her and learn more about her work.  Here’s our conversation:

NABCEP:  Hi Vicki, and congratulations on becoming the first female NABCEP-certified PV installer in Texas.  That’s some distinction.  I’m curious; what inspired you to get into the solar business?  Did you see yourself up on the roof installing PV systems?  I’m sure you carry your weight (plus those of PV panels).   What’s a typical day for you at Meridian, or is there no such thing as a typical day at Meridian?

VM:   Honestly, I have mixed feelings about being the first female in Texas to attain the NABCEP certification.  On the one hand, I am sure it’s a distinction that I will remind my daughters of (with pride) from time to time, but to be the first NABCEP-certified Texas female installer in the five years since the exam was first offered is a lonely position to be in.  I would love to see more women on the technical side of renewable energy, and in the future that will be the case.  I’ll take the chance to mention organizations like Solar Energy International, Society of Women Engineers, MREA, Solar Living Institute and the like, who deserve credit for extending targeted efforts to women becoming involved in solar or technology in general.  Rest assured that there are solar sisters here in Texas. The solar industry, in general, is very supportive of women, but as with many other construction-oriented trades, PV installation crews tend to be male dominated.

I first became acquainted with the renewable energy industry here in Austin in 2003 when I met the president and CEO of Meridian Solar, Andrew McCalla, at the ‘Green Festival’ when it was hosted in Austin in the summer of 2003.  Meridian offered me an opportunity to couple my engineering degree and experience in the semiconductor industry with my interest in sustainable living, renewable energy and permaculture that could not be turned down.  I have worn a lot of hats over the years at Meridian, and the company has changed substantially.  Currently, I’m not wrenching.  I’m designing systems and producing AutoCAD drawings for both residential and commercial projects.

I became NABCEP-certified in October 2008, but becoming a PV installer was not something that I had set out to do after college.  It has been a long held belief of mine that to be a good engineer or designer, one must have experience with applied aspect of the technology to design any system, and that is why I wanted to install PV systems.

NABCEP:   Andrew has had a successful business from the beginning.  In fact, he was in the first group of certificants when NABCEP administered its first PV certifying exam in October 2003.  I’ve lost count of how many Meridian employees are NABCEP-certified.

VM:   Meridian currently employs seven of the twenty-three NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installers in Texas, which is more than any other firm.  An additional three Texas certificants are former Meridian employees who have moved on to other impressive endeavors.  It is not uncommon for the NABCEP certification to be a springboard to advancement.  The labor pool for experienced PV personnel is tight, and the pool of certified personnel is exceptionally tight.  For example, our NABCEP certified personnel work in executive management, project management, design, sales, installation crew lead and trainer, and master electrician.

NABCEP:  Between Austin Energy’s solar rebate initiative and the new federal tax incentives, you guys are keeping busy at Meridian not only in Austin, but in other cities in Texas and other states as well.  Pity Texas still doesn’t have a state-wide incentive program yet.

VM:   Certainly, we install outside of Austin!  We just completed work on the largest PV installation in Texas at the former Pearl Brewery in San Antonio.  We have also completed installations out of state; a comprehensive portfolio of our installations can be found on our website.

Our municipal utility, Austin Energy, has been a progressive steward of renewable energy, conservation and green building programs in Texas.  Other utilities are following suit with conservation and solar rebate programs of their own.  In general, widening acceptance of PV technology and distributed on-site RE generation, the efforts to curb global warming, the energy crisis, reliance on foreign energy sources, need for less polluting electrical generating capacity and the like don’t add up to people, organizations and businesses investing in solar without the financial returns being favorable.   I would rather see renewable energy being subsidized to the same level as nuclear or coal, but in the meantime, hats off to the organizations that are helping PV to be financially feasible.

It would be nice to see the State of Texas added to the list of states to offer a statewide rebate program.  Advances in manufacturing and product development will also help to bring the cost of solar down in the future.  The renewable energy industry must continue to grow and mature, and the people of Meridian and other companies like ours will continue to stay busy facilitating that growth.  Activity has been gaining speed.  Last year, when the renewable energy tax credit extension was uncertain, we experienced a sustained lull before and after the credits were reinstated. The economic slow down kept business suppressed, but that seems to be behind us now.  All of our installers are full-time employees of the company, and even during the last industry lull, Meridian was able to continue to hire and grow.

NABCEP:   I’m not at all surprised.   Growth is good, but not without its challenges.

VM:     The industry as a whole continues to expand at a phenomenal rate.  There are always new product offerings, technological advances, code revisions, rebate programs and incentives, legislation, utility tariffs, permitting jurisdictions and industry news to keep up to date on.  The constant growth of the company paired with a substantial amount of work to complete, creates a challenging environment to keep pace with while balancing personal priorities.  I feel that the key to succeeding at keeping current is the sharing of ideas and information among my colleagues, and the availability of good industry specific publications and information outlets.

NABCEP:   What’s the size of the residential system these days?  Does Meridian install more commercial than residential systems, or vice versa?

VM:   I have been encountering increasing demand from commercial projects.  Commercial design and installation is typically more complex due to the scale, specifics of interconnection, safety, equipment and logistics of the installation.   Meridian is currently performing around 65 to 70% of installed kW in commercial applications.

Residential systems are getting larger, but typical system size usually linked to the constructs of any incentive program offered.  I see quite a few 6kW to 7kW residential systems these days, but system size varies greatly.  For example, we recently completed a 38.4kW residential system.

NABCEP:   If the size of systems are getting larger and more complicated, it makes me think that perhaps today’s solar consumer is better informed, even more enthusiastic about solar PV than ever.

VM:      As more incentive programs are being offered, more people are realizing that investing in solar makes good financial sense.  Generally speaking, it was more common for a residential customer who was contemplating a photovoltaic installation to have performed a quite a bit of homework relating to solar before investing.  Now, the decision to invest in a solar electric system is easier to arrive at because the financial hurdles have been lessened.  A short six years ago, renewable energy and conservation was not in the newspapers or discussed among the masses as it is today.  It is the case that people, in general, are better informed about renewable energy, and there are more information outlets available now.

NABCEP:   You’ve been at this work since 2003.  You’ve seen lots of growth and changes, but I’m curious to know what has surprised you most?  What’s ahead for you in this industry?

VM:  The growth and changes industry wide have been incredible in such a short period of time.  It has been my good fortune joining Meridian as a young company while the renewable energy industry was gaining momentum towards the explosive growth that we see now.  This has allowed me to wear many hats at Meridian.  There’s no shortage of opportunities to grow professionally.  Looking ahead, I am planning on pursuing my professional engineer’s license, and continuing to design renewable energy systems.

NABCEP:  Sounds like you at Meridian are a good fit.  Thanks so much for taking time to talk with us, Vicki.  Keep up the great work.