For more than 23 years, Dan Fink of Buckville Energy Consulting LLC, has lived off-grid. His office at 8,200 feet elevation in the northern Colorado Rocky Mountains is 11 miles from the nearest power line or telephone pole. It’s powered entirely by solar and wind with vegetable oil and wood-fired steam for backup. Dan, an IREC certified instructor/small wind installer, is a professional renewable energy system designer, installer and troubleshooter. Buckville Energy Consulting is an IREC Accredited Continuing Education Provider.

We visited with Dan recently about his work as an off-grid, IREC accredited training provider and certified instructor. Here’s that conversation. [hr]

IREC: You have a long-standing love affair with renewable energy, going back as far as 1991 when you went totally off-grid. Has it become easier over the years to be grid-independent? How has it affected your work?

DF: It has indeed become much easier to live and work off the grid in recent years. Fast satellite Internet was the biggest innovation, followed by satellite phone service. And the rapid pace of new renewable energy innovations has significantly reduced the cost of installing and expanding systems. The current low cost of PV modules helps of course, but so do the little things: modular PV racking, snap lock PV connectors instead of junction boxes and ring terminals, MPPT controllers for high voltage PV, wind and micro-hydro, purpose-built power centers…all of these provide reduced cost of materials and labor.

Buckville Ipsilanti class
Buckville students wiring a new 1kW wind turbine stator. Eastern Michigan University class, Ypsilatni, MI

IREC: So no matter where you are, whether 11 miles from the nearest power line or at the epicenter of downtown, reduced costs in labor and materials matter! Do you actually train at your site in Masonville?

DF: Since 2007, we’ve been offering classes at our facility in Box Prairie, Colorado, 25 miles west of Masonville. The September 2013 floods forced everyone here to evacuate to FEMA housing in town for months, and our classroom and shop facility remains uninhabitable. We have been training in other facilities in Colorado, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin for the time being. Our office here at Box Prairie is now back in operation.

IREC: And beyond Box Prairie, CO, how remote are the installations for your work? You mentioned an off-grid, helicopter-only accessible installation that you performed recently. Where was that? How do you do something like that, like deliver tools, people and equipment to the job site?

DF: A very remote steelhead fishing lodge in northern British Columbia, Canada contacted us a few years ago with a big problem. The cost of gasoline to run tiny generators at their camps was well over $25 a gallon by the time it was delivered by helicopter or float plane. But they could accommodate a small number of students during their off season, and off-grid systems (both solar-electric and water) were exactly what they needed.

In past classes, we’ve moved students, staff and off-grid equipment to the camp sites there via float plane, helicopter, canoe, whitewater raft and plain old backpacking. The combination of hands-on installation classes and (even more importantly) yearly staff training sessions has been very beneficial for both them and us. It certainly boosts everyone’s situational awareness when your electrician’s tool belt is required by class rules to have a big canister of bear spray and a flare launcher hanging from it, right next to the usual wire strippers, crimpers and cutters. Grizzly and black bears, wolf packs, wolverines and irritable moose can be visitors up there when you least expect them.

IREC: Solar and steelhead fishing in one place? Where’s my fishing rod? Of the five classes you offer, three of them are wind: wind turbine design and construction; turbine towers and installation; and wind power reality. Why the focus on wind curriculum?

DF: The small wind industry has gone through some major shake-ups over the last couple years, and accredited training classes in small wind design and installation programs are becoming difficult to find. We are proud to continue offering these classes when others are dropping them. “Wind Power Reality” is a fast-paced introduction to Small Wind where we try to convince people that they don’t need a wind turbine, and then explain in detail why small wind power off the grid can be so valuable, versatile and cost effective.

Buckville students working on a 1kW wind turbine magnet rotor layout, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti

IREC: Does off-grid power require greater service and maintenance?

DF: Reliability and regular maintenance are extremely important with off-grid systems, as they are often located in remote areas where transportation times are long and costs high. In my classes, I teach that energy awareness is really the single most important factor to make living off the grid fun and rewarding–always being aware of how much energy you are using, how much you are generating and how much you have stored.

IREC: Who takes your classes?

DF: We get a very interesting mix of students in our classes. Some are already renewable energy professionals who want to branch out into other specialties such as off-grid and small wind (and need CEUs for their certifications), some are considering new careers in or career changes into renewable energy. Others are simply homeowners with no electrical experience who plan to move off the grid for enjoyment or retirement and want to be sure they do it right.

IREC: Let’s talk credentials. What inspired you to seek training IREC’s provider accreditation and instructor certification? You feel credential-based training has value to you as an instructor?

DF: Most definitely. I do not think we would still be teaching without our IREC credentials. Our IREC accredited continuing education provider award opened up a vast new pool of talented and dedicated students. It gives CEU credits to professionals who need them and want to keep up on the latest developments in renewable energy technology. Credentials look good (and are universally recognized) on resumes for those seeking clean energy careers. It also gives peace of mind to students that they are signing up for a real educational experience, not a sales pitch.

What inspired me to seek the IREC credential? Frankly, the amount of deceptive and misleading information available on the Internet about renewable energy systems, with small wind an incessant problem. Our IREC credentials assure prospective students that they are buying an education, not a sales pitch. And my new IREC Certified Instructor award shows that I’m dedicated to providing the best in renewable energy education, no matter who employs me to teach it.

IREC: What do you do to hone your teaching skills? Care to share some tips?

DF: We gather and listen to feedback from students. The strict record keeping requirements of IREC accreditation made us really focus on our internal communications between our instructors and our students, so that the next class we teach is always better than the last one.

Happy students with 17ft diameter wind rotor they just designed and built. Midwest Renewable Energy Association class.
Happy students with 17ft diameter wind rotor they just designed and built. Midwest Renewable Energy Association class.

IREC: It’s a good model. That way, everyone gains. What’s ahead in the teaching queue? Anything interesting, out-of-the-ordinary?

DF: Yes! On November 8 at in Colorado, our class will be designing off-grid power and water systems for a family that operates a safe house for foster children on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. They want to move out of government housing and back onto their ancestral lands. Next year, we’ll be teaching hands-on classes there near Wounded Knee, where students will install the systems designed by the class. Also for 2015, we’re planning a variety of classes in Colorado, Wisconsin, Indiana, Nebraska and South Dakota. The classes are always listed on the Home Power Magazine and Solar Professional Magazine websites, as well as our own.

IREC What’s been the biggest challenge(s) in your work? Alternatively, what’s surprised you the most?

DF: Biggest challenge? The IREC accreditation process. All I can say is WOW. It was intense and rigorous for both credentials. There were no short cuts. Now I have the confidence that IREC scrutinized and approved every aspect of my curriculum, professional renewable energy installation work and business operations and ethics. It gives potential students confidence that they are buying a highly-valuable education.

Balancing teaching and installing has also been a surprise. The only way for my classes to improve is to do more installations in the field. And the best way for my installations to improve is to make sure every new thing I learn in the field finds its way into the curriculum. Mistakes I make in the field become very valuable (though sometimes embarrassing) “teachable moments” for the next class, and input from students during classes make me wonder “why didn’t I think of that?” and implement their suggestions on the next install. It’s a win-win situation.

IREC: Teachable moments for both students and instructors. The ideal outcome! Thanks, Dan, for the conversation.

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All images: Dan Fink