Association for Energy Affordability: On the Leading Edge of Technology-Enhanced Instruction
The non-profit, Association for Energy Affordability (AEA), performs energy efficiency upgrades for affordable, healthy housing for low and moderate-income families. AEA’s staff of energy efficiency engineers and project management professionals offers training, technical support and energy services in New York and California.
Under the leadership of Executive Director David Hepinstall, AEA became one of the first Building Performance Institute Affiliates and has been a training and technical assistance provider for Weatherization in New York State for over 15 years. AEA’s energy efficiency training is well known and highly regarded among energy efficiency program staff, contractors, building operators and property management firms.
As a Department of Energy Weatherization Training Center and under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), AEA increased and extended the reach of its training for weatherization sub-grantees and their subcontractors to expand and develop a trained and certified workforce, as well as for participating contractors and partners in utility energy efficiency programs and NYSERDA’s Home Performance and Multifamily Performance Programs. AEA teamed with workforce partners to offer entry level courses for energy efficiency technicians under state and federally funded programs during the ARRA period, as well.
AEA’s energy services teams successfully weatherized more than 60 multifamily buildings containing over 4,500 units with ARRA funds, on top of its ongoing contracted production levels. In all, AEA’s energy engineering staff completed comprehensive energy audits of some 600 buildings with more than 42,000 units for weatherization subgrantees during ARRA. Also during the ARRA-funded period, AEA’s Training Center provided training to 2,909 students.
AEA recently was awarded the IREC ISPQ Training Program Accreditation for its Residential Energy Auditor training program.
IREC visited with David Hepinstall and Anna Sullivan, AEA’s Director of Curriculum and Accreditation, about their work, and why AEA went after the IREC ISPQ credential. Here’s our conversation.
IREC: Congratulations on AEA’s recent award of the IREC ISPQ Training Program Accreditation for your Residential Energy Auditor I & II Training Programs. What was the inspiration to seek the credential?
AEA: AEA recognized that the IREC credentialing process was the right vehicle for the organization to assess and refine policies and processes and to evaluate where we were against a rigorous standard. We feel that attaining IREC accreditation gives our students, staff, and our other stakeholders added confidence in our training and testing services. We attained the credential for our Residential Energy Auditor Training Program on April 2, 2013h
IREC: How did you find the process to attain the IREC credential?
AEA: IREC’s process was detailed and comprehensive, and the right lens for us to examine every aspect of our training center operations and program. It provided exactly the tools we were hoping for when we started the process.
IREC: It may be a little early to tell, but do you think the IREC credential might play a part in student’s selection of this course offering? Are you marketing this new credential to your students?
AEA: As we have only just been awarded the credential, it is too early to determine how it will impact our students’ decision to select this course. However, we are certainly letting students know about the new credential in our marketing and informational materials in the hopes that it will increase the likelihood of their selecting this course over others in the marketplace. We feel confident that it sends a strong signal to students that we are investing in quality so that they receive the best possible return on investment for their training course.
IREC: Because clean energy training programs have proliferated over the past several years, offering programs that focus on quality training and meet the needs for the workforce with real job skills would set you apart. What are AEA’s demographics? What classes are most students enrolling in?
AEA: Both our staff and our student body are diverse in terms of gender, racial and ethnic background, and professional experience. AEA students work for engineering and architecture firms, building and HVAC contractors, weatherization agencies, and home performance companies, as well as building owners, property managers and superintendents. In addition, some of our students are changing careers and/or seeking entry-level job opportunities in the energy efficiency sector.
IREC: Do you track your graduates? Are they finding work after they leave AEA?
AEA: Of course, many of our students are already working in energy efficiency jobs and come to AEA for training to help them perform their current jobs. Students that attend AEA courses through our workforce development partnerships are tracked from training to job placement. During the past few years, 33% of our graduates from our entry-level Energy Efficiency Technician program found industry-related jobs within the first few months of completing their training at AEA and more have been hired since the reporting period ended. Many of our other students also stay connected with AEA through on-going professional development training courses and certification testing, special workshops, our online student resources and surveys, and our newsletter. Through these channels, we have multiple ways to learn first-hand about our students’ job promotions, changes in industry employment trends, and worker mobility across the field.
IREC: Wow! Is that in both NYS and CA? On that on-going professional development training, what’s so unique about AEA’s approach?
AEA: To date, all of our workforce development training programs have been conducted at our New York City training facilities. Training staff has the unusual advantage of working in an organization that offers a breadth of technical assistance and energy program services. The effect is a real learning organization, where staff can gain ongoing exposure to field challenges and innovative solutions. We bring that field experience and expertise back into the classroom for our students. We have invested in making our training facilities into highly effective learning environments. Installed energy efficient heating systems and controls, energy management systems, working solar inverters and more comprise a working laboratory to explore high-efficiency central systems installed in urban multifamily dwellings as well as small homes.
Our unique pressure diagnostics building demonstrates dynamics of air flow and heat loss under various scenarios. Our hands-on installer training lab introduces new materials and techniques for air sealing, contains a model passive house. Finally, our distance learning classrooms and technology provide a high-definition, interactive learning platform using animation and graphics tools that make lessons “pop” – and extend our reach far beyond our physical facilities in New York, including our ability to incorporate experts from locations across the United States in delivering course modules in their specialties.
IREC: It’s obvious that AEA’s educational approach is broad but thorough–all the pieces connect. That’s a quantifiable advantage for the student, a convenient segue to those impressive post-graduation employment stats. Do you think offering such content-rich, relevant curriculum using the latest in classroom technology hasn’t been lost on your students?
AEA: We strive to ensure that our technology-enhanced learning tools are integrated seamlessly into all of our classroom and lab experiences and that they serve highly targeted purposes for learning and performance objectives. One of the greatest use we have found these tools is for demonstrating otherwise invisible processes, such as heat and moisture transfer, processes in piping and boiler systems, and how components come together to make assemblies. We also use modeling and 3D animation to take students on virtual building tours to complement class, lab, and field work. During the classroom presentation, students are provided with more traditional building data for each case study, such as photos, maps, blueprints and key documents. For the class activity, students take a virtual building tour, but this time they can manipulate it, take measurements, solve problems as a group, and look inside computer-generated building systems. Increasingly, we are using 3D modeling, animation and video learning tools across most of our curricula, as we have seen learning retention improve significantly as a result of developing and adding these types of tools.
AEA: AEA’s Connected Classroom Network offers some of the best examples of how we integrate technology-based learning tools into our curricula. Students across the country can not only interact in life size with our instructors and other students during their course experience, they also have the opportunity to see inside complex heating system components in our main lab as if they were physically present, thanks to small high-definition video cameras that our instructors and facilitators use to bring our classes to life. Because AEA provides training for a national audience, our curricula and trainers are well-versed in regional variations, and we always work with our partner locations to make sure courses are tailored to meet the needs of their building stock, specific systems, construction techniques, and climate conditions.
Our accredited Residential Energy Auditor Training Program is currently offered at our Bronx training center. We offer a broad range of other courses and modules on our national distance- learning network.
IREC: Though energy efficiency is the basis of AEA’s work, you recently added PV and solar thermal to your offerings. Are these classes well attended? Are you considering the IREC program accreditation for these as well?
AEA: In 2011, AEA completed the installation of PV arrays, solar thermal systems, and a green roof at our Energy Management Training Center in the South Bronx, NY. Our engineers have also provided technical assistance services to energy retrofit projects that incorporated renewables. With our increasing institutional expertise in energy efficiency and renewables, we are in a prime position to add solar PV and solar thermal training to our course catalog. The first courses are now scheduled. We will certainly be considering IREC accreditation for these programs as they develop further.
IREC: Despite your impressive curriculum and training models, do you find it challenging to keep up with the rapidly changing field of clean energy technologies, whether it’s finding qualified instructors or being nimble enough to respond to changing industry trends? Or do you think of it as an opportunity to explore new areas?
AEA: It is sometimes very challenging to keep pace with the rapid change in technology, software, techniques and materials in our field, but this reality is also one of the most exciting aspects of the work we do. Our team of practitioners, trainers and instructional designers actively enjoy staying at the cutting edge of industry trends. Revising and updating our curricula is a standard mode of operation for us. Engaging with new technology so we can share it with our students is at the core of our work culture. We find that the opportunities for constant learning and re-tuning of skills and knowledge are critical components for our employees’ job satisfaction, keeping them engaged and stimulated.
IREC: Being engaged and stimulated is vision in action. It results in and inspires organizational innovation, irrespective of the organization. Does this culture of innovation keep AEA inspired about greening the built environment?
AEA: Best practices for achieving AEA’s mission of energy efficiency is a moving target as innovation brings higher levels of building performance into reach. This means that there are always ways to make the discipline and the industry more effective, which inspires us to continue learning new tools and techniques and to pass these onto to our student body. AEA has embraced Passive House training and advanced Air Barrier Association of America training on self-adhered and fluid membranes in recent years. These initiatives are excellent examples of the new techniques, materials, and standards that serve as game changers and keep our work exciting and inspiring. What we have also found over the years is that our talented team of staff and contractors – across all divisions of the organization – overwhelmingly come together around a shared commitment to and passion for the mission-driven work we do, and this keeps energy levels for our work strong.
IREC: Mission-driven work—it’s the why we do what we do. So in that vein, what’s in the queue for AEA?
AEA: We plan to submit for Retrofit Installer and Quality Control Inspector course accreditation this summer. In addition, we have been looking at a variety of other credentials in the residential, multifamily and commercial arenas we work in.
IREC: No slowdown for AEA (no surprise there). Congratulations, again, on the recent award. And thanks for making time to share the AEA story.