Julie Brazeau, instructor development coordinator for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), holds the IREC credential for certified instructor/PV installation professional. A master electrician and certified commercial inspector for the state of Wisconsin, Julie teaches photovoltaics (PV) courses at MREA and conducts the Midwest Solar Training Network Instructor institutes. Between teaching and curriculum planning, Julie sat down with IREC to talk about her work as a solar PV instructor and the importance of credible credentials. Here’s our conversation.

IREC: Since forever, MREA has placed a high value on credentials. In fact, it had a training program accreditation awarded back in 2003. That’s some legacy: MREA has held a credential as long as we’ve had a program! Obviously you, as well as MREA, place a high value on credentials. Why? Maybe more importantly, why the IREC credential?

JB: For me credentialing is the hallmark of quality training and it sets any tradesperson apart. I learned the trade within the culture of electrical construction work where shortcuts are frowned upon. It’s important to get it right!

I have always taken a lot of pride in the five-year IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) apprenticeship that I served, learning from talented journeymen and master electricians along the way. They taught me that electricians can do ANYTHING, and I still marvel at their ingenuity.

In 2005 I pursued the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) PV Site Assessor Certificate. That kept me connected with Wisconsin’s PV Industry.  I began working toward the NABCEP PV Installer Certification and continued to build relationships within the industry.

When the MREA asked me to teach PV classes for them, I became part of a network of passionate instructors and PV installers. While teaching for the MREA, I also taught PV courses for my union, and renewable energy courses at Mid-State Technical College/Wisconsin Rapids. These cumulative teaching experiences, along with my electrical licenses, NABCEP certification and other PV related activities helped qualify me as an IREC ISPQ Affiliated Instructor in 2013.

Julie Brazeau (center) works with students at a hands-on PV workshop at MREA.

IREC: What interested you in the first place to become a master electrician?

JB: Successful completion of my five year IBEW apprenticeship qualified me as a WI journeyman electrician. At that time, the state of WI didn’t require an electrical license, but my local union (IBEW 388) was encouraging journeymen electricians to pursue the master electrician license. It’s a tough exam, focusing on code. Seeing my coworkers pursue that credential certainly helped to strengthen my resolve to earn the WI master electrical license. And I have never regretted the hard work it took to earn my credential. In 2013, Wisconsin adopted an electrical licensing requirement, making the master’s license even more valuable!

IREC: Nothing like being prescient. And did your entrée to PV follow soon after?  

JB: I live in central Wisconsin where the MREA hosts its Annual Energy Fair. I attended the fair before I became an electrician, so it was a natural next step to engage with the MREA. The NABCEP Installation Professional Certification was another important certification milestone. At that time (2009) NABCEP was the only PV certification available, and it wasn’t easy to earn. For me, the Wisconsin master electrician and NABCEP credentials definitely opened the door to training.

IREC: So you’ve got valuable industry credentials and training begins to emerge as an opportunity. Would you say there’s a critical relationship between training and industry? Does quality training adapt to the ever-changing needs of industry? 

JB: Without a doubt. Over the years, we have all watched solar training become more readily available. In my experience, training organizations that work hard to earn and maintain accreditation are better equipped to provide a quality training product. The MREA’s alignment with IREC standards drives our programs to deliver consistent, high quality courses.

The MREA continues to invest resources in developing third party recognized certificate programs. Students at the MREA and our partnering organizations can earn the ANSI/IREC nationally recognized certificate for site assessment. Our new MREA PV Design and Sales Certificate will launch this summer (2015). With our training partners across the Midwest, the MREA helps build local PV markets by doing public education sessions called Power Hours. Most homeowners face a significant learning curve before making a PV purchase. As an unbiased third party, the MREA is able to provide resources to aid in the consumers’ learning process.

IREC: I’m familiar with those Power Hours. You do them with the good folks at Kankakee Community College (IREC accredited), Tim Wilhelm (IREC master trainer) and Jennifer Martin. The range of courses offered by MREA is wide and deep, as I recall.

JB:  We offer advanced PV courses for solar professionals to earn continuing education credits for NABCEP and state licensing. We have also developed training for inspectors and code officials.

IREC: Which means your student population is equally wide and deep?

JB: Yes. We serve a broad range of students, from those new to the solar industry to electrical professionals, solar contractors and code officials. MREA certificate programs are attractive to those entering the solar field. In addition to gaining solar knowledge, they earn a recognized credential for their resumes. Many students find that MREA certificates complement their existing skills. Training for MREA certificates is available online and face-to-face to meet the needs of today’s professionals. We also conduct contract training for companies looking to expand their staff’s knowledge and skills. And we have training relationships with regional supply houses that provide training to their clients.

Our inspector training workshops have been offered across the Midwest for the past three years.

IREC: What do you see up ahead in the PV training space?

JB: Definitely online training! More and more people are getting comfortable with the online format, and they are finding that they can learn anything they want from the comfort of home. It makes all kinds types of training so much more accessible. People are really dialing in to online solar training.

IREC: What’s surprised you about this work? How can people get involved in training, either as trainers or trainees?

JB: The PV industry continues to change so rapidly! We are witnessing the evolution of this young industry as it responds to innovations in equipment, economic challenges and policy variability. I’d strongly encourage people to look for accredited training and find ways to network with other professionals. National conferences are a great way to connect with big industry players, while local PV conferences help to reinforce local relationships. Many of these events also provide opportunities for professional development. For anyone looking for a really fun way to accomplish all of the above, don’t miss the 26th Annual Energy Fair in Custer, WI from June 19-21.

IREC: It’s just around the corner! Thanks so much for your time, Julie.