Frank plumbs the heights

Frank plumbs the heights

Greening the economy calls for a whole raft of new skills which can be costly to acquire for SMEs but free help is at hand, as Peter Jackson reports

Frank Ord had ambitions for his plumbing and heating business, wanting to diversify the work it did and the clients it operated for. The Sunderland-based family owned company Frank Ord and Sons worked on a range of plumbing and heating projects from small domestic maintenance operations to larger scale, commercial work.

Managing director Frank wanted to attract more private commercial work, particularly commercial heat pump installation and maintenance projects. However, while his three staff had experience in air source heat pumps, they did not have a certificate allowing them to install and, importantly, to commission systems.

But the process of training and accreditation costs money and would represent further overhead for the business. Fortunately, not only was help at hand – it was also free.

In Sunderland, this took the form of the Sunderland Low Carbon Energy Demonstration project, which is managed by Sunderland City Council, and part funded by the European Regional Development Fund. This is a £3.9m investment in a low carbon social housing project which aims to reduce energy costs and tackle fuel poverty, while also contributing to local and national carbon reduction targets.

Part of the project is to provide renewable energy training for local businesses. It includes industry standard courses in the installation and maintenance of technologies (photovoltaics, solar thermal, heat pump and biomass), introductions to technologies, and community energy courses. The courses are offered to SMEs and sole traders.

Leader of Sunderland City Council Councillor Paul Watson said: “Across our region there’s a growing awareness of the economic and environmental benefits that are available in the low-carbon economy.

“Now, there is a package of support that can help local SMEs and their employees gain additional skills, knowledge and certification in a range of low carbon and renewable technologies.’’

Renewable energy training is seen as important in playing to the region’s growing strength in the sector. The North East is host to a range of low carbon organisations and facilities, including offshore renewable energy testing facilities, Nissan’s electric vehicle manufacturing facility, and the majority of solar photovoltaic manufacturing in the UK via Solar Capture Technologies and Romag.

The training for the Sunderland and Tees Valley projects is provided by Narec Distributed Energy (Narec DE), a spin out company from the UK National Renewable Energy Centre, with support from a number of other organisations.

Ed Walker, project coordinator at Narec DE, met Frank and Christine Ord at a Sunderland restaurant in December to discuss how the Low Carbon Demonstration Project could benefit them. Following an initial assessment of the company’s requirements, the decision was made to book three staff onto the Logic Level 3 QCF Installation and Maintenance of Heat Pumps course running between January 13 and 16.

During that initial meeting Christine was also interested to learn that additional support was available in the form of MCS (Microgeneration Certification Scheme) coaching. Given the company were interested in pursuing the MCS accreditation, an appointment was made two to three days in early March, during which Nick Davies, principal engineer at Narec DE, would assist the company in achieving MCS accreditation. Frank Ord said: “The lads all found the training really useful and it was a well-managed course with fantastic instructors. To receive both this heat pump course and the MCS assistance for free is fantastic.”

He added: “The heat pumps have been a little bit slow to begin with but we have only had these qualifications for a week or two now. We’re also not able to fully commit many staff to this just yet as we have another large gas contract to finish but once we can commit resources fully, we’re expecting high demand. Going forward, we are also really interested in getting someone trained up in installing biomass systems.”

A similar scheme is in operation in Tees Valley, The Tees Valley Workforce Skills project. This is funded by the European Social Fund and the UK Government’s Skills Funding Agency. The fund is administered by Hartlepool Borough Council. This scheme is targeting SMEs and sole traders with premises in the Tees Valley, who work in either the manufacturing, construction or engineering sector.

Sue Hannan, employment and skills manager at the Tees Valley Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “We’re excited that Narec DE are operating as a training provider in the Tees Valley, allowing SMEs and sole traders in the region to access fully funded renewables and low carbon training.”

She added: “This training will help local businesses diversify into renewable energy technologies, growing their client base, growing their businesses, and thus growing the local economy.”

Both projects started last autumn. So far some 26 staff for about 13 Tees Valley firms have been trained and in Sunderland 63 individuals from 34 firms have been trained. Narec DE has also delivered consultancy services on seven projects as part of the Sunderland scheme.

Narec DE is part of the UK National Renewable Energy Centre group of companies. It carries out a range of work in the renewable and low carbon sector, particularly within the built environment helping its customers reduce carbon, alleviate fuel poverty, improve energy security, stimulate economic growth and educate energy users. From its centre in Blyth, it offers: renewable energy training; testing and monitoring on a range of renewable energy and low carbon systems; strategic consultancy and technical consultancy.

For training, it works on a UK-wide basis and offers a range of courses on subjects ranging from solar thermal hot water system maintenance to biomass technology and fuel awareness. It is the only centre in the UK to offer the Level 2 heat metering course. It has worked on consultancy projects throughout the UK and Europe.

The Tees Valley Workforce Skills projects is ongoing and the Sunderland Low Carbon Energy Demonstration project is due to finish this August.

Walker said: “Renewable energy is a very big growth sector, especially in the North East. We have the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK and things like renewable heat technology allow people to tackle fuel poverty while generating a bit of income for themselves.

“In terms of the sole traders and companies providing these installations, it’s opening up another income stream for them. Sole traders are especially unwilling to invest in taking a course unless they have a guarantee of an income coming in, but if they are going on a course that’s funded, it’s easier.

“Also, people should take it up to lower their carbon impact in the North East.