September 8, 2009

Michael Kuhn: ISPQ Master Trainer, NABCEP Certified PV Installer, Recent Newly-Wed

I’ve only known Michael for a few years, but in that short time, he’s moved so quickly into solar PV training that it’s hard to believe he’s not been at it for decades. As President and CEO of ImagineSolar, Michael’s been involved with business development, workforce development issues in the City of Austin for years….

I’ve only known Michael for a few years, but in that short time, he’s moved so quickly into solar PV training that it’s hard to believe he’s not been at it for decades. As President and CEO of ImagineSolar, Michael’s been involved with business development, workforce development issues in the City of Austin for years. Michael’s got the unique distinction to be the first, and so far, the only, Institute for Sustainable Power Quality (ISPQ) Certified Master Trainer in Texas, and one of 22 Texas-based NABCEP-certified solar PV installers. He says he did his first solar project in 1975, but worked in various technology fields until 2002 when he started ImagineSolar and began training the general public about solar energy. Today, Michael’s name is synonymous with renewable energy workforce training in Texas.

IREC: Michael, you’re a recent ISPQ Master Trainer awardee, aren’t you? The universe of ISPQ Master Trainers is a small one, but growing, and yours is a real distinction.

MK: The IREC ISPQ Award Committee granted my Certified Master Trainer award on June 19, 2009. I was the first in the State of Texas to receive certification by the ISPQ. As of August 2009, there are only nine ISPQ Certified Master Trainers in North America, and I’m glad that now Texas is on the list with one. In addition, I am one of only 22 individuals in Texas that are a NABCEP Certified Solar PV InstallerTM (Certificate No. 031409-78).

IREC: As I recall, we met in 2005 when you, John Hoffner and I approached the Texas State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) to support a workforce development course based on NABCEP’s Task Analysis at Austin Community College. We were convinced that it was important and timely, but it was a novel idea at the time, and that was only four years ago.

MK: SECO was on board from the beginning and provided the funding. ACC agreed to an in-kind match and the first course offering was developed and instructed by John Hoffner and myself. Subsequent funding led to developing an additional eight courses including the for-credit Solar Photovoltaic Systems course that is now part of a two-year associate degree in renewable energy at ACC.

IREC: I remember that first Spring semester in ’05. ACC agreed to offer the course under Continuing Education as a way to test the waters, to see what the response would be. And it was easier to get novel classes, like solar energy, approved through Continuing Education. ACC said the class would ‘make’ if 12 students registered. The only advertising we did was on the back page of the Austin Chronicle. You remember what happened?

MK: I certainly do remember – we had so much demand that the class filled almost immediately and ACC asked John and I to double the hours per week of instruction so that two classes could be offered. It never slowed down after that – our solar classes always had a waiting list. Students would stay up past midnight until the online registration was opened to sign on.

IREC: Like waiting for tickets to a concert. So it’s almost 2010, and solar energy training has come a long way since that initial continuing education offering at ACC. Now ACC’s an ISPQ accredited continuing education provider for four courses. What’s changed? What’s different between the classroom of 2009 and that of 2005?

MK: The ACC program is still going strong. The big change is that PV system installation in Texas is now seen as primarily electrical work. Anticipating this, ImagineSolar started another training program at the IBEW-NECA AJATC Electrical Training Center earlier this year. We offer workshops that are open to everyone – both non-union as well as union contractors, entrepreneurs as well as job seekers, engineers as well as non-technical individuals. Year-to-date, we have trained 216 people at the AJATC Electrical Training Center. Our workshop participants come in from around the United States as well as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Canada. In fact, 73% of our ImagineSolar workshop participants come from out-of-town. At ACC, my students were mostly from the local community.

IREC: Four courses at ACC says that the demand for this training is strong. Are they able to keep up with the demand? Are there enough instructors?

MK: ACC now has several instructors and I am working with ACC to develop a train-the-trainer program recently funded by SECO to ensure that students at ACC and elsewhere have qualified instructors.

IREC: What’s happened to the ACC students who have gone through the program at ACC? Do you or does ACC track their work history to see if they’re actually working in the solar industry?

MK: I actually have seven former students that now work for ImagineSolar after they studied under me and passed the NABCEP Entry-Level Certificate of Knowledge (COK) exam. We also hire participants from our workshops for specific field experience projects. Others have gone to work for local contractors and for Austin Energy.

IREC: That should be very reassuring to students, to know that jobs are out there waiting for them right here in Austin. Becoming an ISPQ Master Trainer is a big deal. The requirements to be an ISPQ Master Trainer are demanding. Not only does it require many hours of teaching experience, it’s a rigorous application process. Why did you decide to become an ISPQ Master Trainer, and are you glad you did?

MK: I have been an advocate for the solar industry for over a decade working in the areas of policy formation, solar project justification and development, market transformation, and workforce development. In order to have a successful solar industry, we must ensure that solar project designs and installations are professionally completed in compliance with relevant codes, standards, and quality workmanship practices.

The mission of NABCEP is to award recognition to qualified solar practitioners so that policy-makers can be assured that there is a qualified workforce to implement the results of their solar incentive programs and so that the public can be assured of professional work. I support the mission of NABCEP Certification and as a commissioner for the City of Austin I helped to define the “qualified solar contractor” and to require NABCEP certified professionals to be on staff for any contractor that wanted to participate in the City of Austin solar rebate program.

By extension, it is imperative that the instructors that train solar practitioners also be qualified and that there be a process for the instructors to be certified. The ISPQ certification is that process. I submitted my application in hopes of becoming certified and to support the certification process. I am very glad to have done it and to be recognized by ISPQ.

IREC: So let’s see: in 2009, you’ve become an ISPQ Master Trainer, started a second training program, and oh yes…you got married. Congratulations on all of those accomplishments. I think we can all agree that there appears no slowdown in our industry. As an educator, a trainer, an installer, what needs to be done to prepare the renewable energy workforce for today, for tomorrow?

MK: The big challenge ImagineSolar is addressing now is moving forward on training for utility-scale PV system design and installation. In the last two months, we have made workforce development proposals to both the Department of Energy and the Department of Labor that would support this effort. Austin has approved the building of the largest PV power plant in the United States (30MW) and San Antonio is moving forward on a PV power plant that matches the current largest installation (14MW). Both of these require a local qualified workforce to ensure that we create local jobs instead of workers coming in from out of state. The solar project developer has stated that 50% of the jobs on the City of Austin PV power plant will be filled locally. We want to be sure that can happen.

IREC: And if you’re successful with your funding proposals? Remember, you’re a newly wed.

MK: We hope that our proposals will be funded. If they are, then we will be conducting training throughout a five-state region starting in 2010 as well as developing a qualified workforce to support the utility-scale and large commercial solar projects here in Texas. Also, ImagineSolar is in the planning stage with one of our customers to establish a PV performance testing lab capability that will be used to compare the performance of different PV technologies operating in the Central Texas solar resource and climate. This facility will have a dual use including real-world education with professional development opportunities.

And I should mention that ImagineSolar is the PV workshop provider chosen by the Texas Renewable Energy Industry Association and the Texas Solar Energy Society for the 10th Annual Texas Renewable Energy Roundup. This is an excellent opportunity to get trained on PV system design and installation and then attending the best annual renewable energy event in Texas.

Finally, ImagineSolar was approved this year as a provider to CH2M Hill on its Solar America Cities tasks for the Department of Energy. We have begun working projects on this program. Fortunately, for me, my new bride believes in the work we are doing and is our greatest supporter!

IREC: I never thought I’d live long enough to see this level of a renewable energy activity in Texas. I expect this elsewhere, but in Texas? Does this surprise you?

MK: No surprises – the time for solar power is now – all is unfolding as anticipated – we have reached the tipping point – it is time to “imagine solar” everywhere!