Submitted by Chris Williams
Chief Marketing Officer, HeatSpring Learning Institute

From teacher to student: what we learn from each other
a conversation with Chris Williams, HeatSpring Learning Institute, about the ever- shifting training landscape

Chris Williams

About the author:  Chris Williams is the Chief Marketing Officer at  HeatSpring Learning Institute and writes about renewable energy marketing, sales, design and installation.  A clean energy jack-of-all trades, Chris has installed over 300kW of solar PV systems, dozens of residential and commercial solar hot water systems and 50 tons of geothermal equipment. Chris is an IGSPHA Certified Geothermal Installer and will be sitting for his NABCEP PV Exam in September. He went to Babson College and founded Green Light Distrikt and consults with renewable energy companies on sales and design.

HeatSpring Learning Institute teaches solar, geothermal and building performance to building professionals.  Our ‘Solar PV Installer Boot Camp’ received the IREC ISPQ Continuing Education Provider accreditation in 2009.  “We see tremendous value in the IREC ISPQ Accreditation because it forces us to continually evaluate and improve the quality of our programs,” said Williams.

According to Williams, IREC’s ISPQ helps HeatSpring maintain instructional quality, and industry relationships help them offer training that is relevant in the marketplace.  “There’s no better source for that feedback than past students,” said Williams.  “We try to maintain a strong focus on supporting the business of solar, and as the industry shifts rapidly, so are the training needs that will make each organization successful and profitable.”

Williams generously shares two stories from HeatSpring alumnus that illustrate some ways in which the renewable energy industry is indeed shifting.


Alumni Story 1: Universities Can be a Great Market

Recently, I spoke with Nathalie Assens at Project Manager at ZVI Construction. ZVI Construction is a medium size, three-decade old, design-build construction company that does a lot of work with universities around Boston as well as  internationally.   Nathalie enrolled in both HeatSpring’s geothermal and solar training programs because their clients were interested in saving money on energy. Since then, ZVI has completed more geothermal projects, including the first geothermal project at Boston University.

According to Assens, ZVI Construction finds the university market interesting and attractive for energy efficiency upgrades because they own their buildings forever, giving them a long-term view (and appreciation) on how to reduce energy costs.  Over time, those long-term relationships begin to feel more like a partnership.  Rather than merely selling systems, ZVI also performs other construction and maintenance work.

Though Nathalie has already realized a huge potential for geothermal applications, she also sees the opportunity for solar.  She attended HeatSpring’s solar PV boot camp to understand how to integrate solar into their systems and better advise clients. Although it’s not obvious, she found that there is a huge overlap between clients that “get” geothermal and those who are interested in solar.  The challenge is finding the right person and organization that “gets” that combining solar and geothermal is a no-brainer.

The challenge with universities is timing the energy upgrades with existing scheduling regarding capital expenditures and building upgrades. It’s much easier to install new systems when work is already in the queue.

Nathalie says that the main reason training is important when advising clients is to help them understand the technical risks.  Engineers are, by nature, risk adverse which results in over-specifying or over-sizing equipment.  The key for them is to understand the technologies well so they are comfortable with specifying and designing for them.

Takeaways from ZVI Construction

  • Existing construction firms with a long-track record, and those with whom ZVI has had strong, existing relationships, tend to have an easier time entering the energy efficiency market because their clients already trust them;
  • As geothermal and solar projects are getting larger, they’re also getting more complex from a design, installation and financing perspective.  Not surprisingly, strong customer relationships are becoming ever more important; and
  • University and public properties that have an extremely long view can be the low hanging fruit of upgrades with large capital outlays. However, they tend to only want to deal with one or a small number of firms for all of their maintenance, operations and building upgrade needs.

Alumni Story 2: Commercial Developers Begin to Seek Solar Expertise

Chad Gessin, VP at Chatham Energy Solutions, took HeatSpring’s entry level solar PV training in June 2011 while he was developing the solar division in a third- generation construction development company.

Chatham Energy Solutions, based in New York City, was started by his grandfather as a small electrical contracting company. The business expanded into a large electrical contracting company and in the late 1980s, Chad’s father shifted the business into real estate development and building.  Primarily, Chatham Energy developed condominiums– thousands of single-family units.   Its business model is based around designing, building, and selling the properties.

Two years ago, when the slowdown began to affect the residential building market, Chad attended a packed homeowner solar informational seminar sponsored by the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA).  While they didn’t find solar technology new impressive or challenging, the economics seemed challenging yet interesting. Chatham Energy quickly noticed there was a lot of competition in the residential market, so they decided to position themselves in the commercial sector where financing, not technical ability to design and install solar, is the major issue to building projects.

Over the next few months, they built test systems to get their feet wet and better understand the design process and labor time needed for installation.  For a while, the solar business was on again, off again. However, in the past three to four months, they’ve focused on growing the solar division. They’ve positioned themselves as consultants and owner’s representatives to other large developers and property owners. Currently, Chatham Energy’s working as an owner’s rep on a 750kW system on 15 affordable housing units in Boston. Taking advantage of the federal 30% Investment Tax Credit, Chatham Energy was able to finance the remaining 70% of the cost of the system.

Chatham Energy is currently focused on solar consulting because they feel their understanding of development and the packaging of financing together with engineers and structural work provide the most value to clients. While a lot of solar integrators understand solar, they may not understand the development process as well as Chatham Energy Solutions does.

Currently, Chatham Energy has a pipeline of large landowners with millions of square feet of building space just waiting for NY Solar Jobs Act to become law. Until then, they’re holding on all projects until they understand the implications of new solar incentives.

Takeaways from Chatham Energy Solutions

  • While technical knowledge of solar is still an important factor, it is starting to provide less of an advantage in the market;
  • The value in the solar supply chain is shifting.  Five years ago, understanding solar and how to size systems provided a significant advantage. This is currently shifting; organizations that understand financing, structural and civil engineering (for ground mounts), and client relationship are gaining more leverage;
  • The lack of consistent and clear policies is still negatively affecting the development on a state-by-state level.

These two stories from past students illustrate how many little niches exist in this rapidly changing industry.  IREC’s ISPQ provides a critical underpinning of quality to what we all do, and it’s a great pleasure for us to play a small role in the success of the savvy business people who represent the future of the solar industry.