December 16, 2009

Interview: Chris Warfel: trainer, installer, designer, solar oyster farmer

It was 20 years ago when Christopher Warfel, Principal of ENTECH Engineering, responded to a request from his brother to conduct an energy audit at the school at which he (the brother) taught.  The audit went well—well enough that Warfel ended up writing a grant for new windows, lighting and a new furnace for the…

Chris_WarfelIt was 20 years ago when Christopher Warfel, Principal of ENTECH Engineering, responded to a request from his brother to conduct an energy audit at the school at which he (the brother) taught.  The audit went well—well enough that Warfel ended up writing a grant for new windows, lighting and a new furnace for the school, ultimately launching his energy career.

Today, Warfel, through his firm, ENTECH Engineering, teaches, designs, installs and inspects renewable energy systems.  He’s a NABCEP certified PV installer–his classes range from three hour seminars to 40-hour CEU certified courses based on NABCEP’s task analyses.  ENTECH’s installation work, primarily on Block Island, Rhode Island, includes solar domestic water heating, solar electric, and small wind turbine systems.

He’s a busy guy—a very busy guy.

Last month, Chris was teaching a pre-conference workshop on advanced concepts in design, installation and performance of PV to a crowded room at the 3rd New Ideas national green workforce education conference in Albany, which is where I caught up with him.  Despite his busy schedule, Chris was kind enough to talk about his work.  Here’s our conversation.

IREC:  Good to see you, Chris.  How was the Advanced PV workshop?  What sort of people were in your class?

CW: It really was a diverse class. We had teachers, installers, electrical inspectors, administrators of renewable programs, etc.  We even had a teacher from Australia who shared videos of AC switches and over-current protection used incorrectly in DC applications. Everyone loves to watch equipment fail safely in a laboratory environment!

It was difficult to know how much material to cover in the six-hour class. It was advertised as an advanced class for educators and installers. These are two diverse groups, so I decided to load it up with topics that ranged from economics, to changes in the NEC 2008, to common installation problems and how to address them.  We got through about ¾ of it, with the rest of the material having to be taken home and reviewed as time allows. The evaluations were in the “good” range and only one tomato was thrown. There is always room for improvement.

IREC:  That’s my motto.  So while we’re on that subject, let’s talk a little bit about the people who take your classes.  Do you find them more educated today?  Are they asking better questions? Are they asking questions at all?

CW:  I think the questions are getting better with the answers needing to be more complicated as we all become more knowledgeable on proper installation methods.  The group in the Advanced PV workshop in Albany asked a lot of good questions; however, in a recent class in the Midwest for inspectors regarding solar thermal technology, I did not get one question; even when I asked them a question. That’s never happened before.

I will say that the advanced PV pre-conference workshop had the most educated students I have ever taught.  Most all other classes have people with little or no experience, but they are there because they want to learn and that is more than half the battle.  I think there is a better awareness of renewable energy technology, but many still confuse solar thermal technology with solar electric, or vice versa.  The work by the industry, especially John Wiles and Bill Brooks, has helped tremendously.

IREC:  At least they’re more aware.  I’m curious about your style of teaching.  Anyone can teach, but not everyone can convey concepts and ideas in a way that’s motivating and interesting.

CW:  The greatest challenge is to communicate complicated concepts clearly, and in a time frame that is useful to the audience. Overcoming entrenched opposition or reactionary people is a challenge that one would think would have lessened over time, but we are still finding places where some people are still unreceptive. I think it is really just another case of ignorance being challenged by what we are doing, which can create some discomfort for those who are comfortable with the status quo.  As the applicable codes change, and they are changing often, being able to understand the basis for the changes is important and a challenge.  Another challenge: creating the time for students to review the latest material.  Just making them read the updates to the NEC turned out to be a good idea. Why? Because it’s hard for an installer to justify the time to do this.   Being in a classroom and forced to do it creates the space/time they need.

IREC: Sure, because they’re working in the field all the time—the classroom provides a designated, set-aside time to learn.   I know ENTECH Engineering offers PV, solar thermal and small wind training to code officials, municipalities, utilities, as well as the licensed trades (i.e., plumbers, electricians, pipefitters).  This seems like a good strategy, not to mention a huge demand.

CW:  When we are teaching NABCEP type courses, we are teaching across a broad spectrum of homeowner and electrician skills.  We have also taught seminars for inspectors, pipefitters, plumbers, electricians, municipal and utility personnel, and educators, so it seems we teach just about anyone interesting in learning about various renewable energy technologies.

IREC:   That surprises me.  I would have thought that the demand for someone with your technical and teaching experience is high—it’s not the best use of your time to teach to the home or business owner.  Maybe you hire out for that work?

CW:  I do like teaching. It helps me become better at my work, and I learn myself during the process. I suppose when ENTECH becomes an international conglomerate, we might train others to teach for ENTECH, but until the foreseeable future, we’ll be pretty much hands-on.

IREC:  Can I get in on stock options before you go public?  I know you like teaching—you’re good at it.  Are you spending more time teaching than installing?

CW: It varies from year to year.  Most of our time is spent designing or reviewing designs.  Inspections are then our next most frequent assignment. We install in a very limited area in order to remove any perception of possible conflicts of interest, but installations have become an increasingly larger aspect of our business.  Teaching is generally next, though this can become more of our work if we are retained to teach a NABCEP-type course.

IREC: I know you’ve helped states manage their renewable energy programs. Has that aspect of ENTECH’s work ramped up?  Who have you helped?

CW:  We have long-time clients, and recently with the Obama administration’s emphasis on renewable energy, states that are ramping up their renewable energy programs that will result in projects in the ground have become a larger part of our customer base.  There is a need to establish these programs with the proper quality control mechanisms in order to minimize administrative and technical problems in future years. We have a good track record of helping to form these programs so they deliver the most projects with the lowest administrative burden, yet establishing safeguards so the program makes efficient use of the funds available.

IREC: Are you doing more wind installations than solar?  More PV than solar thermal?

CW:  Although I live in one of the best wind regimes in the world, siting wind turbines larger than 10kW has proven to be problematic. I do expect this to change with increasing awareness of wind, and more widespread support.  That being said, we install much more solar thermal and solar electric than wind.

IREC:  As a trainer, as an educator, what teaching strategies have you found that have worked well?

CW:  I think being honest about anyone’s ability to actually know EVERYTHING about these technologies is helpful.  Teaching these technologies could be a full time position at least, and given that there are very few full time teachers, (for example, we install, design, inspect, etc.), the chances of one entity being a complete and perfect compendium of renewable energy knowledge is unrealistic.  Knowing the core competencies is most important and providing those in the audience the means to supplement the classroom experience with their expertise makes for a more interesting and complete learning experience.

IREC:   And the hands-on component?  What does that piece of your curriculum look like, and where do you do it?

CW: We’ve done hands on training mostly in Rhode Island. The program that we support teaches to the NABCEP core competencies, with the hope that the institution becomes ISPQ accredited. The students install all components of a grid interconnected battery and non-battery system. We have about 2/3 classroom work, and 1/3 field work. The field work components only take place after we have covered the subject in class.  We hoped to help establish an advanced teaching facility in Massachusetts, but regulators unfortunately believe that it is not needed at this time. I feel a major opportunity may have been missed.

IREC:  So let’s say you’re not installing, teaching or designing renewable energy systems, which would be a huge loss for the industry–how would you spend your days?

CW:  I would probably be raising more oysters on my oyster farm.

IREC:  No doubt it’s solar-powered.

CW:  Yes, it is!   It’s been a business for seven years.  We farm the Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginicus), and I even brought them to the Advanced PV Workshop at the Albany conference (dogs are optional).

IREC:  Obviously, I got there too late.  When’s your next training?  Thanks, Chris.

Cleo, Kirby and Elvis