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What's Your Solar Career Road Map?

Posted by: chris
September 30, 2013
Brian Mehalic - SEI Instructor and PV Curriculum Team

How did I get my start in the PV industry? It’s a question I answer in brief all the time when I teach classes – or meet new colleagues in the solar industry, or folks who want to get a start, or people who want to sell me an inverter or module or rack. So here’s the longer version.

I’m an English major. Yep, liberal arts to the core, though my father, bless his soul, surely would have loved for me to follow in his engineering (aeronautical, NASA) path. But I didn’t. I graduated, and did pretty well, and stuck around for a job for a while. Then I got a job selling posters on college campuses. Sounds crazy, and it is – crazy lucrative – all those empty dorm room walls, all that textbook money. And seasonal. And the off-seasons ended up getting spent in Mexico, camping out of the back of my pickup on remote beaches, next to fishing camps, and in and around tourist meccas. On the cheap on the beach, then back to work for a few months. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

After a few seasons I was on the way back home for the holidays. I ran into a friend, and we ran into a bookstore, and I stumbled across a Real Goods catalog. Or maybe call it a design manual, because that’s really what it was, with guidelines, and products, and solutions, and an 800 number. The Solar Living Source Book, yeah I think that’s right. Spending months at a time living out of the pickup I figured there was a thing or two I could pick up from the book; but having recently chalked up all of the lower 48, I settled down for a bit and did some store remodeling (the poster sale, now not on the road), including very amateur electrical work, but mostly painting.

I had been spending more time perusing what was then pretty much a strictly off-grid (with a healthy dose of back-to-the land mixed in) renewable energy market. PV was pretty expensive, and there were lots of work-arounds and hybrid approaches to providing power and heat and water. Out west (Arizona) the appeal of PV (and thermal, and wind, and…well actually not hydro) was obvious, and after a while I stumbled across SEI. An internship! A summer of classes! Colorado! Sold.

But the internership seemed competitive and I wanted to be sure I’d make the cut, so I started working as an entry-level electrician during the late-90s/early-2000s housing boom in Arizona, roping and trimming houses, changing out light fixtures in hotels, and installing circuits in houses. Learned a ton, about electrical tools, and techniques, and materials, got the internship, and spent about 2 months total as a work-trader, doing all kinds of tasks for SEI in exchange for free tuition to a summer of classes. Hands-down one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life, and the SEI staff, instructors, fellow work-traders, and other students are my dearest friends in the industry to this day. And they’re pretty damn rocking outside the industry too!

A job with an installer in Chino Valley Arizona followed my time at SEI (connections, all about connections, and SEI has connections), along with the opportunity and thrill to work on crazy off-grid projects; participate in the birth of the grid-tied PV market; install PV and thermal and solar cooling on my house; work on pool and space heating and solar hot water; fix old systems and sell and design new ones; and train new installers as the business continued to grow and getting NABCEP certified and getting involved at the community college…well then after about 7 years I crossed paths with a crew of SEI folks at SPI in Long Beach, CA. It had been far too long. Carol, my instructor during PV101, aka when everything changed! Johnny, the Executive Director! And Jeff, fellow intern and classmate! Good timing…I like to think I was near the top of my SEI class, but now, years later and having really learned the industry firsthand from the inside, always building on my SEI education, I was ready to come back into the fold. I knew it, and they soon realized it too.

So here’s how it works: SEI’s instructors are the best – mine were, they still are – because they practice what they preach, they work in the field, they design and install and sell PV and hot water and wind and hydro systems for a living. Books can only take you so far. I’m proof of that. Without PV101, and 202, and hands on lab classes, and mentors, and learning in the field, and having a network, and making a living in the RE industry they wouldn’t be worthy of teaching you how to do it. And nor would I.
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