New certificate programs can help electricians land jobs

By Mike McKibbin

Solar energy is a hot occupation these days, and Colorado Mountain College’s West Garfield Campus in Rifle is the place to get qualified to land a job in the rapidly growing field.

Solar certificates at the West Garfield campus offer hands-on opportunities to learn solar installations techniques.

Solar certificates at the West Garfield campus offer hands-on opportunities to learn solar installations techniques.

The college recently received approval from state higher education officials to offer three solar energy certificate programs: basic solar photovoltaic, solar thermal installation and photovoltaic installation.

West Garfield Instructional Chair Sue Schmidt said the classes would help students pass a certification exam given by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. The board is the national certification organization for professional installers in the renewable energy field.

“These are all accelerated courses,” she added. “So someone can complete the solar thermal installation in six days and earn four credits. Or they can take solar photovoltaics over two weekends and get two credits.”

Solar photovoltaics are the solar panels on the sides and roofs of buildings that convert energy from the sun into electricity, while solar thermal systems transfer the sun’s heat to create hot water, Schmidt said. The campus in Rifle recently acquired both solar photovoltaic and solar hot water systems that students can use to get firsthand experience, she added.

Several new classes begin this fall, in addition to two solar energy classes that debuted this summer at the West Garfield Campus: Solar Thermal System Install and Solar Photovoltaics Grid-tie.

Instructor Bill Sepmeier said the certificate programs will give students the knowledge to apply for jobs in the solar industry, especially when work is tight and expanded skills make individuals more employable.

“The 1970s and ’80s models of solar contractors that would install a solar panel on your roof are, hopefully, giving way to the European model,” he said. “In Europe you call an electrician or a plumber and they have the knowledge and skills to do everything.”

Employers expand versatility through training

It didn’t take long for some CMC students enrolled in one of Sepmeier’s summer classes to use what they learned to seek a solar installation job.

“Their employer in Basalt sent these four electricians to CMC and within two weeks, they were bidding on a solar installation job and they were basically in the business,” he said. “They had almost immediate results. Their company had planned to send them all to California to learn this, so they were very happy to find out CMC offered it and at a much lower price.”

John Gotwald, an electrician with Sunwest Electric in Basalt, was one of those four students. While the company has yet to install a solar system, Sunwest plans to create a solar energy installation and retrofit department, Gotwald said.

“With the way the industry is going and all the interest in green energy, knowing about solar looks like it will be really important,” especially for electricians, he added. “Bill taught us pretty much all we needed to know about grid-tied solar systems.”

Gotwald said he would likely take at least one of the new solar courses at CMC, and added some of his colleagues expressed a similar interest.

In addition to the credit classes that apply toward one of the three solar energy certificates, the West Garfield Campus is also offering a noncredit workshop Oct. 16 called Solar for Electricians and Inspectors.

The campus is also offering a Wednesday evening series called Living Green Workshops. The three-hour, noncredit classes can be taken individually or as a series.

Classes in green building, energy or sustainability topics are taught at numerous Colorado Mountain College campuses. For more information, go to or call 1-800-621-8559.