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Workshop attendees got a rooftop view of the 2.5-MW photovoltaic (PV) system on NREL's Research Support Facility. The system, which includes two arrays on campus parking garages, generates as much energy as the RSF uses. Photo by Amy Glickson, NREL

In October, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) partnered with GRID Alternatives to provide a valuable training experience to the technical staffs of five Indian tribes from around the country. The weeklong workshop, which was funded by the DOE Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs primarily through its Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) Program, provided instruction and guidelines on the operations and maintenance (O&M) of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, which all of the participating tribes have recently installed or will install soon in their communities. The tribes participating in the training included the Blue Lake Rancheria, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Picuris Pueblo, and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

On the first day, the 14 attendees visited NREL, received classroom instruction on the components of PV systems and how to plan and manage an O&M program, and visited some of the various PV arrays on the NREL campus, including a roof-mounted system at the Research Support Facility (RSF) and a ground-mounted system on the Mesa Top at the northwest corner of NREL’s South Table Mountain Campus. For the remainder of the week, the class convened at a warehouse facility of GRID Alternatives in North Denver. There, the participants gained hands-on experience with the types of tools, equipment, and PV system components that they will need to use to keep their own PV projects running. GRID Alternatives was a great partner for providing this instruction because they regularly train volunteers working on PV systems and have a facility and equipment that are ideal for giving students real-world experience applying what they’re learning.

Workshop participants get hands-on experience performing on-the-spot preventative and corrective maintenance on a rooftop system GRID Alternatives installed last year in Aurora, Colorado. Photo by Devonie McCamey, NREL

But not all of the training was in classrooms or warehouses. For half of day three, the class took a field trip to one of the residential arrays GRID Alternatives maintains to perform on-the-spot preventative and corrective maintenance on an actual rooftop system. And on the final day of the workshop, the group took went to Boulder to tour the operations center and test field of a major solar installer headquartered there. In the control room, the workshop participants saw how this company could remotely monitor and control a dozen utility-scale solar projects in locations ranging from Florida to California. They also recognized some of the same warning messages from the monitored systems that they learned to identify in their hands-on training.

The feedback from participants rang with praise for the excellent facilities at NREL, invaluable hands-on experiences, and outstanding instructors. One participant, noting how applicable the training was to his job, said: “I have some experience with small installations but never had training that covered maintenance and inspection of systems. In the near future, I will be responsible for O&M of a one-megawatt system. The day spent at NREL was great. I learned a lot.” Others appreciated the practical approach of the workshop. “I really enjoyed the hands-on [experience]," said another participant. "In my opinion, that’s the best way to learn.”

Learn more about technical assistance provided by the DOE Office of Indian Energy.

—Written by Colton Heaps, Engineer and START Project Leader, National Renewable Energy Laboratory