Aug 28, 2023
DOE-funded Program Reaches Milestone in Advancing Clean Energy Deployment
The EMPOWERED program, a Department of Energy-funded program providing free education and training to building professionals on clean energy safety and installation, recently hit a key milestone: over 75 thousand people in all 50 states have utilized these resources.
By: Zack Loehle and Matthew Harris
Over 75,000 Building Safety Professionals Access Free, Expert-Vetted Resources to Support Clean Energy Adoption
Third-generation contractor and building official Kimberly Norman-Rosedam is one of the 75,000 building officials across the country who have used a Department of Energy-funded program providing free education and training on clean energy technologies, safety, and installation. Her story is indicative of the way in which these free, expert-vetted resources are giving safety professionals the knowledge they need to advance the clean energy transition nationwide.
Norman-Rosedam was not always inspecting solar panels: “I am a third-generation contractor who grew up in the masonry business. I was a cement mixer before they came up with that machine,” she says. After a successful stint as a financial technology analyst, Kimberly returned to her roots in construction as a licensed building official in Guilford, Connecticut. And how things have changed since her early days. State and federal funds are pouring in for clean energy projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support good jobs. “There is a lot more solar being installed in our area…Our team works on eight to ten inspections per day, and over a 5-day week, two to three of those inspections are solar installations.”
So how does Kimberly, an experienced building professional working in a rapidly changing field, get the latest knowledge on the safe installation of solar and energy storage projects? She relies on education and training courses like the ones supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Called the EMPOWERED program, this initiative has created and provided access to dozens of online resources that support code officials, firefighters, and others as they learn to work with solar, energy storage, electric vehicle supply equipment, and high-performance buildings (a group of technologies collectively called, “distributed energy resources,” or DERs). Materials are created and vetted by an expert group of partners including the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), the International Code Council (ICC), International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), Slipstream, FSEC Energy Research Center, Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA), New Buildings Institute (NBI), Southface Institute, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The resources are located on two websites: CleanEnergyClearinghouse.org and CleanEnergyTraining.org.
“I will often refer to the courses and videos [on CleanEnergyTraining.org] when I am doing a plan review and have a doubt about something that I am looking at. I love how the course videos break down the different aspects of an inspection in a step-by-step manner and how they test a person’s knowledge along the way— this is important to make sure the person watching the video is understanding the concepts. Also, the Clearinghouse website is a very helpful resource, and I am often referring back to it,” said Norman-Rosedam.
A critical aspect of the project is to widely disseminate fact-based material, with an initial goal of bringing 30,000 professionals to the resources during the three-year project. In the first two years, the resources attracted more than double that number. There is a clear need for EMPOWERED resources, as evidenced by their adoption in communities across the country.
EMPOWERED resources are designed with an emphasis on practicality and immediate use in the building safety workspace, enabling professionals to access the information they need quickly. Popular highlights include IREC’s checklist for building owners considering solar energy, a breakdown of energy storage basics, and a series of short courses on solar PV plan review, permitting, and inspection, among many others.
EMPOWERED resources provide more than just key information for safety professionals—they also include continuing education unit (CEU)-bearing courses. These CEU-bearing courses are essential to support officials dealing with clean energy, who are required to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in codes and safety. Officials can access entry-level courses on CleanEnergyTraining.org and distribute those courses for free to their staff. These CEU-bearing courses are already widely used within the field: Building safety professionals from 48 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico have taken CEU-bearing courses to keep up to date with solar PV and energy storage systems.
In Broward County, Florida, chief electrical inspector Doug Wansor relies on EMPOWERED resources as a means of keeping himself, as well as the structural plan reviewers and first responders he works with, current on industry best practices as they relate to DERs. Wansor has seen significant growth in DERs in recent years, stating that “80% of my workload is now relating to solar.”
Like Norman-Rosedam, Wansor took a roundabout career path to reach his current role. An electrician since 1998, he worked his way up from apprentice to master electrician. “After 20 years as an electrician, I realized that I was ready to move on from manual labor and decided to become a code official, and within three years, I was promoted to chief electrical inspector,” he says.
Staying up to date on DERs is essential to Wansor’s job. That’s where the EMPOWERED resources come in handy. “I like the IREC courses because they simplify training,” Wansor said. “EMPOWERED offers a great entry-level product at no charge. As a code official, I have to maintain my CEUs, and I use [EMPOWERED] courses to get my CEUs with the ICC.” Wansor relies on EMPOWERED resources to ensure well-planned, safe, and code-compliant solar PV installations from start to finish. “All issues should be resolved in plan review. A good plan equals a good installation,” he adds.
Both Norman-Rosedam and Wansor emphasize that continuing to learn is a critical part of being a building official—particularly in light of the accelerating clean energy transition.
“To be efficient and effective, building and code officials need constant and updated knowledge,” says Wansor. “For an inspector starting to enforce renewable energy installations…I encourage them to get as much education on renewables as possible and have knowledge of the components and how they relate in the code.”
Similarly, Norman-Rosedam recommends “that people build relationships and work closely with their fire departments and keep up to date on the codes as they change and as new technologies and ways of working them evolve. I believe in having a good relationship with your contractors and establishing an agreed upon understanding of our goal for safe, code-compliant installations so we can work together to make this energy transition efficient and productive.”
As DERs continue to grow around the country, building safety resources will be all the more critical. IREC and partners will continue to add new resources so that building safety professionals stay informed and confident as the energy industry continues to transform. To visit the Clean Energy Clearinghouse, click here.
This article was originally published in the IREC blog and is republished with permission.