Interview with Craig Stager, SPG Solar

Craig Stager is the Design & Compliance Manager for SPG Solar, responsible for all projects designed, with a focus on enforcing the standards of system compliance and performance. For the past six years, Craig has overseen the engineering, design, and permitting of more than 1,200 projects, ranging from smaller residential to large scale projects such as megawatt single axis solar PV trackers. Craig became NABCEP-certified in April, 2005, and is on NABCEP”s Ethics Committee, and is also a Certified General Electrician (California). In between travel and meetings, Craig was kind enough to talk to me about his work and his involvement with NABCEP. Here’s our conversation.

IREC: Hi Craig. So as SPG’s Design and Compliance Manager, how exactly do you spend your days?

CS: I currently manage approximately sixteen project designers in various regions, as well as sustain professional relationships with several outside engineers. I am involved in the planning, design, and approval stages of project integration, and have gained experience with obtaining approvals from many agencies including The Division of the State Architects, Airport Land Use Agencies, Coastal Commissions, Department of Interior, State Dam Regulatory Agency, Army Corps of Engineering – involving wet land delineation, and several others. There is a true art in negotiation and coordinating for a timely project approval.

As a manager, I strive to develop my project designers to obtain higher levels of professionalism in their ability to coordinate and design code compliant and high performing PV systems. Currently my project designers perform everything from on-site analysis, to providing and coordinating the delivery of a full set of plans to include architectural, structural, civil and electrical aspects of the project. A large set of plans may include up to 30 sheets. We currently operate with the latest AUTOCAD design software, using 2009 MEP as our foundation. We incorporate three dimensional models allowing for finer precision.

Our larger ground mounted systems bring in the land development software, Civil 3D, as we incorporate field survey techniques using our Trimble robotic total station used for capturing elevations for generating topographic ground conditions for producing grading plans and site layouts. The results are more detailed oriented drawings with higher levels of quality that truly exceed the standards for PV design. Some ask if so much detail in our drawings is important. I say yes. You have to take it beyond what is just required, push the envelope of this cutting edge industry, and pay attention to the details in order to really ensure success. It takes a good design and plan to support a quality, code compliant PV system.

IREC: How long have you been involved with solar? Do you love what you do?

CS: I’ve been involved with solar for over six years. Interestingly, prior to my start in this industry, I had no real exposure to PV. I brought other skills and attributes to this work, such as permitting and an understanding of AutoCAD, as well as leadership and hands-on field electrical work, gained from my military experience as an Artillery Officer and Q36 radar technician in the California Army National Guard. I was quickly drawn to the code and the desire to raise the bar of knowledge within this great emerging industry.

SPG Solar, Inc. was founded in 2001, by Dan Thompson, our founder, president, & CEO. His initial vision and active leadership and participation in this PV industry, as well as his innovative approaches, have made our efforts more meaningful as we work within this great environment allowing us to excel and professionally grow. I love this job; it’s challenging and rewarding. I am doing something I can be very proud of, and I can get out of bed everyday, motivated to go to work. The days go by fast as we ride the cutting edge wave of the emerging renewable energy industry. It is great to work in an industry with many motivated and forward thinking professionals.

IREC: If everyone at SPG Solar is as enthusiastic as you, business must be booming.

CS: Actually, SPG Solar has had tremendous amounts of growth. SPG Solar started with a handful of employees in 2001, and today we have about 160 employees with nine facilities in California and now serve the western states, including Oregon and Arizona. We continue to grow our operations and staff to meet our customer’s needs. We have expanded our headquarters five times since the company was founded, from a 1,000 sq. foot office in San Rafael, to our new 30,000 sq. foot campus in Novato. Our revenues have kept pace with our physical expansion – $1.5 million in 2001 to $ 56 million in 2007. We project revenues of $90 million for 2008.

In 2005, our installation methods proved so successful, we spun-off a sister company, Thompson Technology Industries, Inc. (TTI) to develop and manufacture best-of-breed solar products that minimize labor time and maximize system performance.

IREC: Wow. No wonder you love going to work every day. But what obstacles have you encountered along the way?

CS: Other than sustaining qualified designers to support the speedy integration of these projects, in a fast growing company, gaining planning approval from the Administrative Hearings Judge (AHJ) or other outside agency has been the greatest challenge. The building side of the house seems straight forward; design code compliant and safe systems will get the approval, unless we’re educators of the code in a new region or adjust to accommodate their own special preferences or interpretations.

The requirements of the planning side of the house can be debatable, especially if you have to go before a public hearing, go through the process of a formal Environmental Impact Assessment (CEQA) or work with a federal outside agency. These processes can take a long time, and time is something that we generally do not have much of in this industry given the short construction time frames needed to maximize the rebates and tax incentives that may be available for our clients.

IREC: So it really requires you to know your stuff and be ready to respond quickly to the situation. Have you found your NABCEP certification to be a plus for you in your work? Do you find people know about NABCEP, or do you have to educate them?

CS: Yes, NABCEP has been a plus, more for boosting my confidence and providing a national recognition for my knowledge and experience. People in the industry seem to understand what NABCEP symbolizes, yet most hardly know what is means. I must admit that saying the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners is a mouth full. It’s much easier to say NABCEP.

Outside of the PV industry of designers and installers, I find myself having to educate about NABCEP, explaining that the program is for professional PV installers in the nation trying to lead the way by being certified to a national standard of competency and upholding a code of ethics to install the highest quality photovoltaic electrical systems for our clients.

IREC: It’s great to have a cheerleader like you. In addition to being NABCEP-certified, you’re a member of NABCEP’s Ethics Committee. That seems consistent with your SPG role of Compliance and Design Manager.

CS: The NABCEP Ethics Committee is dedicated to the enforcement of the NABCEP Code of Ethics and the NABCEP Standards of Conduct. As a committee, we investigate allegations of misconduct by members and recommend disciplinary action. I am honored to be part of a group that upholds the highest level of professionalism for a certification that emphasizes the best in system design and installation of code compliant and optimal performing systems. As an adult Eagle Scout, I live by an oath supported with values that offer a great way of life. As a NABCEP member, I feel that I am part of an organization that promotes strong ethical and professional ways toward building systems that we should all be proud of, and that will strongly support the growth of our emerging industry.

IREC: As a certificant and a board member, what do you see as challenges for NABCEP?

CS: The biggest challenge for NABCEP from my perspective would be the growth of new members into this organization as the industry continues to grow immensely, while sustaining the highest level of respect from both the PV industry, as well as other electrical organizations. This could be more easily achieved with the proper synchronization of developing code compliant training programs across America that will support the cause. NABCEP’s Entry Level Certificate Program is the exact thing for those wanting to get started in solar. As the market grows for PV, those holding an Entry Level Certificate will find it easier to obtain employment, and it will also overall benefit the industry to have more qualified installers.

I also think that NABCEP sponsored projects would also be a great offering. For example, projects having a NABCEP certified installer could receive better incentives, and possibly be offered higher priority during the AHJ review process.

IREC: Sounds like you’ve been giving this some thought. Any surprises about being NABCEP-certified?

CS: No real surprises, yet the benefits have been greater recognition, confidence and additional opportunities. I can only hope that the organization will continue to thrive and support the professionals that are dedicated to building the highest quality PV systems.

IREC: With active, involved certificants like you, Craig, NABCEP is in especially good hands. Thanks for spending time with us.

CS: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.