Renewable-heat skills under the spotlight

SummitSkills, renewable energy, biomass, heat pump, training, solar
Achieving best practice in renewable heat — Nigel Hollett.

Nigel Hollett of SummitSkills and chair of the Renewable Energy Skills Forum, looks at the skills challenges faced by the renewable heat industry and what is being done to address them.

Building-services engineers and installers have long been adapting to new ways of working – with great success. Many years ago, for example, installers had to move away from a traditional ‘heating-engineer’ role into a predominantly gas-focused role. As a result, the gas and flue-gas knowledge and safety of a British heating engineer has improved.

As technology changes, so does the concentration on different skills sets and how each profession operates. The improvements in heating-system controls and circuits have allowed engineers to lose some heating knowledge. For instance, where previously a great effort was needed to balance circuits, these days with the systems sealed and thermostatic radiator valves doing the job, there is less need for commissioning in the same way.

The introduction of renewable heat sources such as biomass, solar thermal and heat pumps means the industry is now going through a new round of change. It doesn’t necessarily require all the gas skills that the industry has gained recently, but new types of heating skills and knowledge — an evolution of sorts.

This all means that if renewable-heat systems are to be installed properly and work to their maximum efficiency, we need a sufficient number of suitably qualified installers. Fundamentally, it’s also vital that a foundation of good quality, consistent and readily available training is in place to train and accredit renewable heat installers.

Mainly due to the uncertain nature of the renewable heat industry over recent years, the training market for this sector has been low. Whilst some trainers have immersed themselves in renewable heating, other trainers have adapted their skills from the gas sector and only infrequently delivered training courses. Some trainers have come directly from the renewable-heat industry and have limited training experience.

Issues surrounding non-standardised course content, duplication and non-accredited qualifications are just some that need to be addressed.

Through the Renewable Energy Skills Forum (RESF), we now have a means of tackling some of these issues. Established to improve renewable heat skills and training, the forum is looking at areas such as renewable-heat qualifications, training delivery and assessment to see how the system can be improved and high quality maintained.

The Department of Energy & Climate Change appointed SummitSkills to establish the RESF in collaboration with renewable heat and training industry partners such as awarding organisations, the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), installers, qualifications regulators and representatives from colleges and training providers.

To use the management cliché, the RESF is all about continuous improvement. Most heating systems are based on combustion of a gas, liquid (oil) or solid (biomass). New technologies such as heat pumps, solar and fuel cells are now in the mix. Further challenges are presented when these need to be integrated via series or parallel control in low-loss headers and buffer stores with four, or more, pipes.

Commercial HVAC systems are already designed, installed, set to work and then commissioned before client handover and regular maintenance. Similar skills changes are coming to the domestic sector. Biomass and heat-pump systems often need to be designed, installed and commissioned more carefully than a gas-boiler system, but, of course, there is no risk of a gas explosion with these systems. However, a good example of the new skills that can be required are the carbon-monoxide risks associated with wood-fuel stores and associated preventative measures. Every new technology brings its own new skills requirements.

Some early quick wins include providing learning resources to support trainers and learners. We are also working hard to simplify, rationalise and communicate the entry and upskilling routes to ensure we have a joined-up training market. This includes being clear about which courses comply with MCS and the Building Regulations.

Training delivery is also important. Rather than ‘death by PowerPoint’, training should be made as interactive, practical and engaging as possible, to ensure it is more participatory, rewarding and productive.

To allow flexibility for those who have already been working on renewable technologies or have some experience of them, there should be a route whereby they can be directly assessed or cover refresher training and assessment. Simply using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for training and qualifications would be inefficient and ignores some of the valuable skills already present in the industry.

These types of issues and more are all on the forum’s agenda. It will be taking an industry-led approach with partners to promote best practice in renewable-heat design, commissioning, maintenance and fault-finding training and assessment. With the right structure in place, the industry will be well-equipped to embrace this latest round of technological changes and deliver greater efficiency to commercial and domestic properties.

Nigel Hollett is general manager of SummitSkills.

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