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Solar Energy International: Not Just a Number

Posted by: april
June 10, 2011

Solar Energy International Renewable Energy Education Program Team LeaderBy Kathy Swartz
Renewable Energy Education Program Team Leader


I love working at SEI. Plain and simple. I love my colleagues, this amazing little town of Paonia, Colorado, where our solar training PV Lab Facility is located, and of course, the people who attend our workshops.

Each Monday, I get chills as I listen to workshop participants in our hands-on trainings introduce themselves. They each have a story to tell about how they came to this point in their lives where they are taking the leap into the renewable energy world and about how they came to find Solar Energy International.

The class that started on Monday was no exception. We welcomed 29 people from three different countries and 14 states for our PV101: Solar Electric Design and Installation (Grid-Direct) training that started on Monday, June 6, with the majority staying for our Solar Electric Lab Week starting on the 13th, or the battery classes that start the week following.

Many of our participants have had an interest in solar for a long time, and due to a life change or a decision to go for a second career, they decide now is the time to take the leap and really go for it. Like Joe, an electrician recently laid-off from the ship-building industry in Maine. He's been interested in solar for more than 10 years and when the lay-off occurred, he decided now was his opportunity to go for it.

Joe spent a lot of time researching training companies, called several of them, and finally chose us because he saw that we trained trainers and he thought, "Why would I go to anyone else?" Joe decided if he was going to go for it, he was going to go for it 100% and he signed up for the whole solar program.

Or like Tomas from Peru. Though he works in the gaming industry, he's had a personal interest in solar for a long time. He found us through an Internet search, and was impressed because we kept coming up at the top.

Probably half the class is composed of electricians like Joe, or engineers who see the opportunity to enter the expanding world of PV by incorporating it into their existing trade. Michael, an electrician from Colorado, realized this was his opportunity to expand his skills to make himself more employable.

Conversely, we always get participants new to the field, excited by the potential solar offers. Justin from Idaho decided to spend his summer taking SEI classes before returning to college. He had done a lot of self-study about PV and was so excited to take this class. He found us on the web and thought we really seemed to know what we were doing and has not been disappointed. His goal is to install PV systems on RVs.

And there's Eric from Indiana, who just finished his freshman year of college to be an engineer. How did he find us? "Like everyone else in this class! I did a lot of research online," he says. He was impressed with our 20 years of training - that's what sold him and he signed up for four classes while on summer break. On the first day of class, he connected with Danny, another participant from less then 30 miles way in Louisville, KY. The clue? Danny had a coffee mug from a local coffee chain. They didn't know each other before this training.

I can't tell you how many times these types of connections happen. Like during our Wind Design and Installation class in early May. One of the wind participants was walking down the street in little ol' Paonia, the Sunday before the class began, and one of his fellow participants from a PV class in Washington recognized him as he drove by. And it was a reunion!

When you come to SEI, you become part of our family, albeit our large family of 16,000+ people. You'll meet fellow alumni or staff at conferences, trainings, and randomly in airports, national parks, or just going about your day-to-day business because you happen to be wearing your SEI T-shirt. Within the solar industry, the logo of SEI means something - professional, quality training known for being personal. You definitely aren't a number at SEI.

I digress. Back to our participants.

There are three PV installers in our 101 class this week. John from New Mexico was referred to us by his colleague, a Solar Energy International alumnus. Though he's been installing for a time, John wanted to know the back-end of the systems to help make him a better installer. He is planning to take our PV202 class to dive even deeper into the NEC.

Then there's Josh and Nick who are just beginning to work as installers for another SEI alumni-based company in Colorado. They were able to take advantage of some workforce funds to attend this training.

Approximately 10 years ago, DIYers made up the majority of participants who took SEI classes. However, as the industry has drastically evolved, our classes are now largely composed of people looking to get into the industry. But we still get a few DIYers each class. Like Alonso, from Texas, a trained chef who runs his family restaurant that he's worked in since he was 11. He bought a PV system and after he realized there was no one in his area who could install it, he decided to learn to do it himself. Alonso spoke to the fellow who sold him the system and told him that he was thinking of coming to SEI to get some training. The guy (an alumnus) said "YES! That's the place to get your training." And then he watched our YouTube video that explains our PV Lab Week and was sold.

Alonso and his wife came out and are loving it. She, like many of the significant others who come to Colorado, explores during the day while he's in class. This weekend, while in-between trainings, they are adventuring together as there's so much to do around Paonia - wine tasting, mountain biking, exploring, fly fishing, rafting, eating good local food (my personal favorite), visiting hot springs, or simply just admiring the snow-capped mountains while strolling the quaint downtown of Paonia.

On a personal note, thanks to the all the participants this week (and every week) who inspire me with their passion for renewable energy, their commitment to get the best training, and their courage in going after their dreams. There are so many more stories I could share if I had more space.

I wish each of you the best as you continue down the path of renewable energy.


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