GW Solar Institute Awarded $430,000 from Energy Department

Solar Institute, Planet Forward and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory will create educational video series.

May 20, 2016

By Brittney Dunkins

If the roof of a house was on fire 15 years ago, a firefighter would cut the electric, climb up to the roof, punch in a hole and start pouring water on the fire, according to Amit Ronen, director of the George Washington University Solar Institute.

But today, a firefighter might encounter a solar panel on a flaming rooftop, Dr. Ronen said. Would that first responder know how to react?

With one million solar installations in America—many of which are residential— firefighters and other professionals need a new set of skills and training focused on understanding solar energy.

In response, the GW Solar Institute is partnering with GW Planet Forward and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to create educational videos about solar energy that will fill those gaps in knowledge. The project is funded by a two-year, $430,000 award from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative.  

“As solar installations become more popular, firefighters, real estate agents, financiers and appraisers need to understand how solar energy and solar installations work,” Dr. Ronen said.

“It’s not their day job to know all about solar, but we plan to provide concise information in an accessible and entertaining format that they can use in their work.”

The GW Solar Institute is a part of the GW Sustainability Collaborative. Its mission includes educating the public about solar policy issues, Dr. Ronen said.

The series will feature five videos including traditional webinars and “explainer videos” that use graphics and a voice over to communicate a concept. Other videos will model the format of popular television shows such as the investigative journalism showcased on “60 Minutes” and the instructional home improvement offered by “This Old House.”

GW Solar Institute experts will develop concepts and write scripts with support from NREL. Planet Forward will lend expertise in journalism, new media, production and editorial to create the content. GW students will take a hands-on role in creating videos.

The series will be available to the public, and videos will be released and archived on the GW Solar Institute website.

"Storytelling can have immense impact to communicate information, best practices and the excitement of innovation,” Planet Forward founder and School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno said in a press release.

“Nowhere is this more apparent than in the story of solar, which is changing the energy landscape.”

Dr. Ronen said that the need for a series of this kind is linked to the nearly 80 percent drop in price of solar panels in the last five years. With prices at a record low, the industry is booming but more installations mean that people who are not directly involved in solar installation need expanded working knowledge of solar energy to do their jobs effectively.

For example, firefighters might need to learn new safety measures or how to cut power to a solar installation. And real estate agents will need an understanding of how solar installations affect the value of a property.

The SunShot Initiative is a part of the DOE’s Solar Training and Education for Professionals program to train and educate the growing number of professionals who work with solar energy.

According to Dr. Ronen, lack of knowledge about solar energy systems causes friction that increases project costs because it raises “soft costs” such as the uncertainty around safety procedures, maintenance, permitting, valuation and other processes before, during and after installation.

“The market is expected to continue moving at a torrential pace,” Dr. Ronen said. “The hard cost of solar panels is down, but the soft costs associated with permitting, labor, appraisal, compliance, real estate and tax accounting are harder to control and make up two-thirds of the cost of installation.

“If we can educate people about solar energy and installation, we can cut down on those soft costs.”