SEI's Hands-On Solar Training Prepares Students For the Real World
Photo by SEI
- April 26, 2019
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Nestled in the quaint, picturesque town of Paonia, on Colorado’s Western Slope, lies the headquarters of Solar Energy International (SEI). The non-profit educational institution was founded in 1991 by Ken Olson and Johnny Weiss in the neighboring town of Carbondale. At the time, solar photovoltaics (PV) were a rarity. The area was characterized by coal miners, farmers, ranchers, and free spirits who opted for simpler living.
After two of the three coal mines in Delta County shut down in 2013 and 2016, leading to an overall job loss of roughly 800 miners, the community became more receptive to progressive technology. Some former coal miners became involved in the fiber-optic boom to expand broadband access to thousands of homes and businesses. Others looked toward sustainable options like solar energy.
Recognizing the need to create jobs and spark economic development, SEI has been committed to “Solarizing Delta County.” To date, the organization’s efforts have generated over $1.2 million in PV installations, jobs, and financial health to the community.
SEI's Training Courses
Through the years, trends and technologies have come and gone, but SEI’s mission remains unchanged: to empower people around the world through the education of sustainable practices.
The organization’s Renewable Energy Education Program (REEP) offers students and professionals hands-on workshops and online courses in:
• Solar photovoltaics
• Wind energy
• Microhydro power
• Solar hot water
Most students begin with online theory courses to gain an introduction to the technology and different types of systems before they get out in the field.
“A lot of our students will do a combination of training programs from us,” explains PV Curriculum Developer and Trainer Kris Sutton in a YouTube video. “We try to balance in-classroom or online theory learning with in-person and hands-on lab-type classes.”
Intimate Group Instruction
SEI’s goal is to maintain small working groups, between five and eight students for every instructor. The intimate class size enables the students to have more interaction with the equipment, better preparing them to be on a job site solo.
To make their training relevant and applicable, SEI aims to use 90% of the most common products and methods within the industry, including:
• Flat and ballasted roofs
• Pitched metal and asphalt roofs
• Ground mounts
• Pole mounts
Students work with products available on the market today. They learn how to install different types of racking, set up various inverters and wire modules together. SEI is continuously updating and replacing equipment every few years to ensure students are taught the latest technologies.
“We try to work closely with the industry. We connect new students and companies and businesses with the existing solar industry and try to tie to it altogether,” Sutton says.
Most classes at the Paonia headquarters are five days long. The first morning is held inside the classroom and the remainder of the time students are outdoors in a real-world environment. They’ll work on a given system for a few days, then switch groups and work on another full system.
“They have the ability to assemble, wire, test, commission, operate, shut down, de-commission the system, switch groups and do it again,” Sutton says. Through repeated contact, students can experience everything from stand-alone and multimode PV systems to solar water pumps and more.
First International Training Lab Opens
In 2018, SEI opened its first international solar training center in the province of Cartago, Costa Rica. Since launching its Spanish Program five years prior, SEI has trained more than 9,000 Spanish-speaking students, helping to increase solar access for Latin American communities. The Costa Rican facility features three solar PV systems, allowing students to build, commission and test solar electric arrays.
The international facility is the result of a three-year solar training relationship between SEI and local partners CFIA (Colegio Federado de Ingenieros y Arquitectos de Costa Rica) and CIEMI (Colegio de Ingenieros Electricistas, Mecánicos e Industriales).
A Reputation for Excellence
Whether students are trained in Colorado or Costa Rica, they’re finding that SEI's hands-on experience successfully equips them for a career in solar energy.
Lori Bokovoy of Portland, Oregon wanted to become a systems design engineer. “I sent out resumes to different companies and put the courses on my resume,” she revealed. The very next day, Lori received two callbacks from employers wanting to get more information, and potentially hire her. “Just the employer seeing [the solar courses] shows you how good of quality training SEI is," she said.
Students who take part in SEI’s training courses aren’t just those embarking on a solar career. Some students are electricians or construction workers looking to add a solar offering to their business. Others already work in the field and want to refine their skills.
“We look at it as an overall experience,” Sutton says. “We provide the best renewables training and the best labs in one of the more beautiful classroom environments you can ask for.”