April 23, 2009

A Conversation with Mick Sagrillo

Mick Sagrillo has been a small wind energy advocate for more than 28 years. He’s owned a small wind energy business, and worked to install hundreds of systems in nearly all 50 states and more than 28 foreign countries. He’s written hundreds of articles for magazines, many of which have been translated into other languages….

Mick Sagrillo has been a small wind energy advocate for more than 28 years. He’s owned a small wind energy business, and worked to install hundreds of systems in nearly all 50 states and more than 28 foreign countries. He’s written hundreds of articles for magazines, many of which have been translated into other languages. He’s a founding member of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) and RENEW Wisconsin. He’s an instructor, specializing in home-sized wind turbine technology and educational workshops. He sits on boards and chairs committees. And he’s getting ready for the 5th Annual Small Wind Power Conference in Stevens Point, WI, a conference that he founded. Still, Mick found time to talk with IREC’s Jane Pulaski about three areas in which he’s actively involved: NABCEP, training, and Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy Program. Here’s our conversation:

IREC: Hi Mick. You’ve been at this renewable energy thing for a while now. I remember working with you on some small wind energy demonstration projects (remember those?) back in the 1990’s when I was at the Texas Energy Office.

MS: Yes, I do. It has been a long time, hasn’t it? Then, as now, I believe that renewables are part of the solution, and small wind is one of the technologies to help solve our environmental problems. I’m still committed to bringing respectability to small wind energy. That’s what really motivates me. People still think wind doesn’t work. If it’s done right, if it’s well thought out, if the location is correct, if the tower height is the right height, and you use a decent technology, it will last. I’m still concerned that there are lots of untested technologies out there, and if people use them without doing due diligence, we’ll hear that “wind energy doesn’t work” message again.

IREC: That seems to speak to the issue of qualified installers. You’ve been an active player with NABCEP on small wind energy, haven’t you?

MS: Actually, I approached NABCEP in May 2004 about a small wind energy certification. A core group of us worked on this for about four years, following NABCEP’s Task Analysis process, editing, re-editing, and developing requirements to sit for the certification exam. Trudy Forsyth of NREL and I are co-chairs. But the NABCEP small wind certification is still not ready for prime time. NABCEP’s largest installer constituency is PV; solar thermal is next. The small wind installer community, though growing, is still small. Small wind energy and PV are different technologies relative to what an installer needs to know. For PV, it’s 95% electrical and 5% construction. For small wind, however, it’s 95% construction and 5% electrical. NABCEP has a lot on its plate now; it’s going through a lot of growth.

IREC: With the eight-year extension of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC), plus all the stimulus money, it seems like the need for qualified installers, whether for solar, solar thermal or small wind, is necessary even more than ever. Are your workshops filled to capacity?

MS: We are seeing a landslide of people interested in installing small wind systems. It’s a tantalizing technology, but it’s not easy to pull it off right, from siting to final installation. People who want to get into the renewable energy business feel like the PV industry is too crowded; there’s too much competition. They don’t feel that way about small wind; they feel there’s more opportunity to enter the field. For all renewable energy technologies, however, potential customers exceed the installer’s ability to serve them all.

IREC: But the ITC doesn’t require systems, whether small wind, PV or solar thermal, to be installed by qualified or certified installers. There’s going to be a lot of money floating around and the potential for poor installations for any of these technologies is high.

MS: There are sometimes qualifiers on money for states with Renewable Portfolio Standards programs. But for those states without those programs, there will be people installing renewable energy systems who shouldn’t be installing them.

IREC: You don’t install systems any longer?

MS: No, unless the installation is part of a workshop, and a local installer inherits the system. I’m a very good wrench, not such a good manager. When I sold my business, I returned to teaching workshops and consulting, being able to pick and choose projects of interest, like writing and teaching. When you have an installation business, you must have the employees to service the equipment. When you sell a turbine, you’re married to that client for 20 years or more because that’s how long it’ll need maintenance. Still today, people think that because they’ve got a renewable energy system — whether solar PV, solar thermal or small wind — it doesn’t need maintenance. They think that because the energy is free, the equipment will never need maintenance. It’s strange, I know, but that’s how it is, still.

IREC: You’ve been teaching and training for a very long time. You teach wind energy installation courses for MREA, SEI, and others. You write about small wind for several publications: Home Power Magazine; American Wind Energy Association’s Windletter; and Solar Today magazine. Who do you teach?

MS: Over the years, I’ve seen a real shift in who’s taking these classes. It used to be primarily homeowners and do-it-yourselfers. Today, my workshops are filled with those who want to become site assessors, installers and/or dealers. They’re changing careers or adding this technology to the palette of skills and services they already offer. My workshops are highly technical; they’re not introductory workshops. They last anywhere from 5 to 7 days, in both the classroom and in the field.

IREC: Is the technology different today?

MS: Yes — radically different. Over the past 30 years, there’s been a whittling down in the small wind turbine industry. Until recently, we had few mature companies with mature products. Now we’re seeing lots of companies with “break-through technologies,” immature products, some barely thought out. But I think what has really changed most for the mature products is not the design, but the materials that go into the design. Materials today can make a turbine more reliable than when it was originally developed.

IREC: Do you work on a real installation project?

MS: Absolutely. And I work with small wind contractors, companies that will be servicing the turbine and installation. If I can find a homeowner who doesn’t mind 12-15 people traipsing on their property, we set up an installation workshop. We don’t do the concrete work–that’s done ahead of time by the local installer who will sold the system– but we do everything else, from backfilling, to trenching for the electrical, to raising the tower and turbine, and commissioning the system. It’s still a real thrill for workshop participants to install a turbine and see the system actually generate electricity at the end of the workshop.

IREC: Do the students love it as much as you do?

MS: The short answer is an emphatic “yes!” It’s still interesting to me to get the class into the field. Typically, we spend the morning in the classroom, and the afternoon and evening in the field. I break them up into groups. For the group that unloads the parts, I say, “here’s the packing list; now, do an inventory.” For another group, I tell them, “here’s the inverter and the turbine, go develop a list of electrical components.” This isn’t the “insert part A into part B” model, an artificial lab exercise. These are real installations. They’re somewhat intimidated at first, but they’re so focused and committed that they overcome that tentativeness quickly. I’m teaching those who want to be in the business. It’s in all of our interests that they learn well and correctly the first time.

IREC: You’ve had a major role in Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy Small Wind Energy Incentive Program from the beginning. What did you do for that program?

MS: I was a Focus board member from the onset of the program. And I was the small wind technical lead for the Small Wind Energy Incentive Program from 2002-2009. As part of the requirements to apply for those funds, we required a site assessment to be performed. I developed and taught the site assessor training. We typically had about 30 in a class, 2/3 of whom were from Wisconsin, most of who look at this as another business venture.

Though I just pulled back as the Focus wind technology specialist in February, my “to do” list is still long. I’m continuing to work on zoning issues, and readying for the 5th Small Wind Power Conference in June. The small wind industry didn’t have its own conference so I organized the first one and here we are, five years later with a wildly successful conference. This conference is really for the small wind energy installer, the “boots on the ground.” They’re the ones who get the phone call at 1 a.m. That’s what I meant when I said the installer is married to the customer for 20 years. It’s been growing steadily since year 1. We’re limited to 250 (size constraints). We’ve already registered 200, and it’s only April.

IREC: Do you have a Plan B? What else is keeping you busy these days? Aren’t you involved with the Small Wind Certification Council’s (SWCC) work?

MS: No, no Plan B for the conference. Exceeding our capacity for the Small Wind Conference will be a nice problem to have, and we’ll have to review that “problem” before next year’s conference. I’m on the SWCC board, an organization that will certify small wind manufacturer’s products to the AWEA Small Wind Performance and Safety Standard. SWCC’s work is really important; it’ll have a huge impact on separating the wheat from the chaff relative to equipment that’s ready for prime time.

IREC: Still lots to do?

MS: Oh yes. I’ve still got a long list of things I want to accomplish, like NABCEP, continuing to write for AWEA, Home Power, and Solar Today magazines. I see a real need for a “best practices” document designed for those who want to install wind turbines, and zoning administrators. I think it’s important to download the contents of my brain to others in the field like Roy Butler, Jenny Heinzen, Dan Chiras, Ian Woffenden, and others. We’re still a small community of small wind instructors, but we’re growing. And there’s still a lot of work ahead of us.

IREC: Thanks so much for all that you’ve done for the small wind community, Mick. And thanks for the visit.

MS: This has been an honor!