George Plimpton was a journalist who finagled the opportunity to participate, as an aspiring quarterback, in a Detroit Lions training camp in 1966. For his pains, of the literal and figurative variety, he developed the material for a best-selling book, “Paper Lion.” But he also had ample time to question his own sanity from the bottom of piles of exceedingly heavy and muscular men. That is how I felt when I entered the first session of the continuing education course known as “Solar Power, Fundamentals and Installation.”
How did I end up in this predicament? My wife, Katie, and I are interested in alternative energy and noticed a neighbor installing solar panels. When we talked to her about them, the economics seemed compelling and we thought we might be candidates, since our rear roof is south-facing and largely un-shaded. We arranged for a sales representative of a local company, Strata Solar, to come over.
Jason arrived in a soot-belching clunker. I suspected this was part of his sales shtick since he immediately volunteered that he was only several commissions away from being able to trade up to a Prius.
Jason walked around the house to check our roof and shade situation and then came inside to discuss the possibilities around the kitchen table.
“How many kilowatts would you like?” he asked.
“What’s a kilowatt?” I replied.
“What sort of service do you have?” he asked.
“Do you mean gas or electric?” I answered.
“No, like 110 or 220.”
“Hunh?” I said.
“Let’s go look at the box,” he said.
“Do you mean the thing in the basement, or the thing in the garage, or the thing on the side of the house?” I asked.
Jason was getting the picture. After an hour of additional questions, and painstaking efforts on his part to provide explanations, he suggested, good-naturedly: “You know, there’s a course you could take.”
I began to laugh, and prepared to turn the conversation back to, basically, ANYTHING ELSE, but Katie was already probing for the details.

I grabbed an obscure corner seat when I arrived for the first of five, seven-hour Saturday sessions at Durham Technical College. There were fourteen men and one woman in the class, ranging in age from about twenty to sixty-five. To my amazement, my classmates immediately seemed to establish easy camaraderie, as though they had known each other for years. Several did, since Strata Solar was sending them to obtain a necessary certification, but most just seemed comfortable among what I assumed were fellow, technically-minded people. My impression was confirmed when we introduced ourselves aloud to the class and everyone turned out to be an electrician, builder or engineer. The last person to introduce himself was me, explaining that I was probably foolish, as a former English Literature major, to have signed up for the course.
After the chuckling subsided, the much-tattooed teacher, Eric, made a point of announcing how proud he was that every student of his over the years had passed the certification exam at the end of the course, known as THE TEST. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but he seemed to be looking right at me when he said this, almost begging me to slip out of the room and enroll in the Beginning Spanish class across the hallway.
As justifiably proud as he was about his success as a teacher, Eric lacked what one might call the professorial mien. He wore jeans and frayed rock group tee-shirts that did not quite cover his belly. He was bald-headed up top but had a bushy mustache and ear-rings in both ears. Any doubts concerning his credentials to teach about alternative energy, however, were dispelled as soon as he shared that he lives in a yurt. Outside of Mongolian shepherds, I am confident that the world’s yurt-residing population is limited to alternative energy fanatics.
Eric recounted that the only question that had caught his prior class unprepared in the certification exam was one pertaining to the number of watts in one horsepower. Accordingly, we were instructed to recite that one horsepower is equal to 746 watts at the beginning of each class. This nugget of information also was written at the top of the blackboard each week and at the bottom of each of the 182 slides that we perused during the course.
To the extent that seven hours spent inside a windowless, cinderblock room on a gorgeous Saturday in October can be characterized as painless, the first class was a success for me, though it may have been boring to most of my classmates. The discussion covered such easily comprehensible social science subjects as the advantages of solar power (non-polluting, quiet, low maintenance) and its disadvantages (storage, weather, up-front cost). There were only hints of what was to follow as terms such as: watts, joules, cells, volts, and amps, were gently introduced. We were instructed to read the first four chapters of our textbook for the following class and, when Eric admitted that he had nothing else to say with one hour left, we spent the final hour milling around outside the building where four types of solar arrays are installed.
Eric answered numerous questions from the class about the panels. Though I found the panels interesting, just as I find dinosaur exhibits interesting in a museum, I did not comprehend much of the discussion going on around me. A lot of it concerned “connections” and whether “arrays” were “mono-crystalline” or “poly-crystalline.” Assured that these concepts would be made clear in the textbook, I felt confident I was nodding, smiling and harrumphing at appropriate moments. When I arrived home, I declared the undertaking to be manageable. Then I glanced at the text-book….
It is not news to me that areas of study have their own vocabularies. This is, I suppose, the way that insiders separate themselves from outsiders. Put another way, it is how electricians, for instance, separate themselves from poets. It is effective.
Instead of “solar panels,” a term understood by most people, nowadays, our textbook referred to the hardware as “photo-voltaics.” When I thumbed ahead to a chapter called “wiring,” something that I could picture, I learned that wires are “conductors,” and not the sort who punch holes in your train ticket. There are “cells” that have nothing to do with jail and “positives” and “negatives” that have nothing to do with attributes.
I recognized that this was going to be like learning a foreign language and not one like Spanish, with all of its cognates. This was going to resemble Greek.
The second class commenced with the classic bugaboo for the literary mind, namely: equations. P = I X E means that Power equals Current (also known as intensity or amps) times Voltage. Why is Current depicted with “I” instead of “C”? Why is Voltage depicted with “E” instead of “V”? Well, sometimes they are. And, of course, everyone in the room (except me) knew that “V” refers to DC (Direct Current) and “v” refers to AC (Alternating Current). My mind drifted to how much fun “current events” used to be back in high school, but that is a totally different kind of current.
Eric illustrated the distinction between direct and alternating current with a You Tube video called “Drunken Science” wherein two soused actors playing Edison and Tesla debate the relative merits of the two systems. I was able to comprehend that Alternating current is preferable over longer distances. The problem is that solar panels produce direct current. This necessitates a device called an “inverter” and regulating the amount of current requires devices called “charge controllers.” Each such device is worthy of an entire chapter in the textbook. I could continue in this vein but I do not imagine that anyone would still be reading. Suffice it to say that the material was increasingly challenging.
The third class started late because Eric was hung over. He stumbled in with bloodshot eyes and mumbled something about how we would have to speak quietly and slowly. I asked if he had drowned his sorrows in the expectation that I was going to spoil his perfect record, but he insisted that his condition was typical for a Saturday morning. We still managed to cover four more chapters of the textbook and I barely kept my head above water. The chapter on wiring was particularly confusing, but Eric insisted that only a few pertinent parts of it would be on “THE TEST.”
The fourth week returned to less technical matters such as safety concerns and mounting techniques. My classmates groaned with boredom but I was delighted. I spent the week leading up to the exam memorizing what could be memorized and reducing the rest of the course to several acronyms of the sort that make incredible sense when one creates them, and race out of one’s brain the minute an exam is over.
The day of THE TEST dawned quickly. My adrenaline flowed as though the result would actually affect my livelihood. I recalled the last test I had taken was the bar exam decades earlier. Surely, the stakes were higher then. Yet, perhaps because I am now sensitive to being able to “keep up” with mental challenges, I found myself intensely concerned about whether I would pass THE TEST. Also, there was the personal matter of Eric’s record to preserve.
We spent the morning reviewing the material of the previous four weeks. Classmates asked questions and Eric attempted to be reassuring as to what would, and would not, be on THE TEST. I was surprised to see that some of my classmates were nervous. One announced he did not feel ready and intended to take the class again before sitting for the exam. Granted, most of the students worked full-time during the week, and did not have as much time as I had for the purpose of memorizing the textbook.
Eric wished us “good luck” at the mid-day break and ceded control of the room to a proctor sent by NABCEP, the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. She handed out test booklets and pencils after making sure we were seated far from each other. She explained how the bubble sheet was to be completed and then announced the test would take up to three hours. A collective groan ensued since Eric had told us the test would take about ninety minutes.
“Has something changed?” asked one student.
“The Board has decided to make the entry-level exam more challenging,” the proctor explained. “The pass rate was too high.”
This was not what I wanted to hear. However, with my acronyms perched neatly, albeit precariously, at the top of my short-term memory and most pages of the textbook recitable in rhyme, if necessary, I felt ready. It would only be necessary to successfully answer 28 of 40 questions to pass with 70%. And I already felt that one was in the bag: there are 746 watts in one horsepower!
Naturally, the horsepower question did not appear. Several questions DID appear that were nowhere in our textbook or in Eric’s slides. One pertained to the effect of snow-cover on panels and another asked which room could not have a circuit box: a bathroom, a closet, a kitchen or an attic? I cogitated for a long time, and still had no idea. When I completed the test, I felt drained. There was still some time, so I compiled a list of answers I was sure were correct. They numbered twenty. Ten more were fifty/fifty toss-ups, so I expected to have five correct. Of the other ten, I was guessing with either a one in three or one in four likelihood of being correct. Thus, I left the room feeling that I would have 27, 28 or 29 correct answers, depending on how good a guesser I was. Thus, it was down to the wire, so to speak.
I felt physically lighter driving home. It was amazing how swiftly the detailed knowledge that I had crammed escaped from my head. Now, I only had to wait six weeks for the result. That allowed plenty of time to rationalize why I did not really care if I passed or not. Either way, the class had been interesting. And when we installed solar power at our house, I had a greater understanding of its workings.
Most beneficially, perhaps, the constant focus on the position and effect of the sun made me conscious of the weather. I never knew when the sun rose above the trees and when it sank below them. Now, for better or worse, I know exactly. I never knew before that the sun traverses only the southern sky in North Carolina. After this class, I am able to hit myself in the forehead and say, “That’s right. I never have seen the sun above the house across the street, have I? Duhhhh.” Beyond a ton of terminology, my knowledge boils down to the following: Sunshine is good, clouds are less good, and darkness is bad.
When the thick envelope came, advising of my passing score of 29, I was elated. I put the elaborate certificate in a prominent spot in the living room for several weeks (hanging it on the refrigerator seemed excessive). I subsequently learned that several of my classmates had failed. I felt badly for Eric and for them, but I admit it made passing even more satisfying. Though I am now “certified” as an entry-level photo-voltaic technician, I do not plan on further education. There is no attraction to me, whatsoever, in carrying and installing equipment on rooftops.
As to wires, I may know, under certain circumstances, which are conductors and which are insulators, but…. I am still not going to touch them.