Solar Energy Grounded in Ethics

Solar energy is high energy. Professional engineering ethics keep it safe.

The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) publishes a code of ethics on its website, https://www.nspe.org/resources/ethics/code-ethics. As REC Solar’s head of engineering, I require every member of my staff to read it, understand it, and live by it in every project we undertake.

Why? Because in the relatively young field of commercial solar power, it’s the longstanding rules of engineering that ensure high-quality results for our customers.

As one example, the NSPE’s first ethical rule is, “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” For engineers in the solar industry, that means ensuring the designs we create, the products we specify, and the installations we oversee, incorporate the highest possible degree of safety available to our clients.

Consider something as seemingly simple as cabling between rooftop solar panels and the rooftop junction box. Everyone who has ever purchased an extension cord at a hardware store understands that wiring must be rated to carry the power load put upon it. Too thin a cable results in heat. Too much heat can melt the cable’s insulation, create short circuits, and even spark a fire.

But that’s not the only concern. It turns out, sunlight itself can be bad for cables. Wiring is also rated by the amount of ultraviolet (UV) light energy it can tolerate before the insulation enveloping it begins to fail. Ordinary electric cabling may be rated for thousands of hours of UV exposure, but in solar installations, hours add up fast. Even assuming a conservative eight hours of sunlight a day, rooftop cables can expect just less than three thousand hours of solar radiation every year. When you consider that solar installations are engineered to last twenty years or more, it’s plain that designers must require cables that can take the heat.

And this is where ethics enter the problem. Engineers endure constant pressure to do things faster and less expensive. Conditions often demand that we cut costs, accept risks, and speed up work to reduce upfront charges or achieve faster return on investment. But as the NSPE also notes, engineers have an obligation to act as “faithful agents or trustees” for each client, and experience has shown that most engineering disasters have resulted from someone skipping steps, succumbing to financial pressures, or working outside their realm of competence. There are even movies about this fact: in the old disaster film “The Towering Inferno,” the fire was caused by a construction manager cutting corners on electrical cabling.

So when customers ask, “what makes REC Solar different?”, I say that it’s a team with more than 100 years of combined engineering experience, all built on a foundation of ethics. We work by the rule, “do it right or not at all.” Check your work, never cut corners, and always consider quality. And I make sure that our entire team knows that if a question of safety ever compels them to say “NO”, I will always back them up. Our ethics require no less.

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