From speaking almost no English to delivering a speech confidently in near perfect English in front of a crowd – all within a year – is indeed impressive, to say the least.

But that’s not all. When they graduate, they will be armed with skills and knowledge in solar energy, in particular, solar panel installation – a fast-growing industry in Malaysia.

Miri Adek and Ayu Majid from Gua Musang, Kelantan, are students at the Solar Academy, which offers a programme of free education and training in solar energy for underprivileged Malaysian youth. The academy was launched last year by nonprofit humanitarian organisation Sols 24/7.

In addition learning about solar photovoltaic energy, students also learn the English language and are introduced to the JPK (Department of Skills Development Malaysia) IT technician programme; other areas of study include motivation and personal development, project management, presentation and mathematics.

During the 18-month programme – which involves one year in the academy and six months of internship – fees, food and accommodation are taken care of, although students are expected to help with the cooking and cleaning.

All 30 students from the pilot batch last year have successfully secured work placements in various companies all over Malaysia.

Recently, the academy received much-needed support in terms of equipment to establish a solar lab for its students.

PPG, an American Fortune 500 company and global supplier of paints, coatings, speciality materials, chemicals, glass and fibreglass, contributed US$50,000 (RM206,000) to help outfit a new lab with cutting-edge equipment.

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Solar Academy students Miri Adek (right) and Ayu Majid checking the solar panels installed on the rooftop of the Sols 24/7 premises. Photo: The Star / Muhamad Shahril Rosli

With the lab, believed to be the first of its kind for the poor in Malaysia, Sols 24/7 aims to provide a well-equipped, safe, innovative and creative learning environment for its current roster of 116 students.

“Our students can finally apply the abstract theories they learn in the classroom to installing actual live solar energy systems, facilitating a holistic and interactive educational approach,” says Raj Ridvan Singh, Sols 24/7 Malaysia director and CEO.

The solar lab is equipped with an array of live off-grid, hybrid and grid-tied photovoltaic (PV) solar power systems. It also features an advanced electroluminescence test that functions like a solar panel X-ray machine, as well as solar water heaters and a solar-powered air conditioner.

“The solar lab and Solar Academy not only offer students access to a promising future in the sustainable energy industry but they also enable the students’ personal empowerment and development,” says Scott Follett, PPG general manager, South-East Asia.

“PPG is proud to be part of this initiative. We are committed to ensuring that students around the world gain the skills and knowledge needed to become tomorrow’s innovators and help improve society. This is a great programme, and we wish SOLS 24/7 and the students every success,” says Follett.

He adds that Sols 24/7 is a perfect recipient of the funds as the NGO’s principles and mission fit the criteria that the PPG Foundation looks for: “In this case, it is about educating children who otherwise would not get the opportunity,” he says, adding that other elements like science-based learning, focusing on being environmentally-friendly and subscribing to the pay-it-forward concept of giving back to their communities are also important criteria.

“What the management team and teachers of Sols 24/7 do is inspiring. (They) are doing all the work; we are doing nothing, but just enabling (them) to do all this,” Follett says.

With the technical and practical education they get at the academy, 90% of its students are expected to enter into full-time employment and apprenticeships in renewable energy or a related industry within six months of programme completion.

Following the 30 students in the pilot batch last year, the first full batch of 116 students will graduate from the academy in stages next year.

In the meantime, Sols 24/7 has been receiving job requests to install solar PV panels in houses. Some of the customers popped by to enquire after seeing the academy’s own solar panels installed on the rooftop of the six-storey shoplot in Segambut, Kuala Lumpur.

The academy generates an income of RM1,900 per month from selling solar power back to Tenaga Nasional Bhd from its 12kW grid-tied system.

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Students at the Solar Academy assisting each other to put on the necessary safety equipment before installing a solar panel. Photo: Sols 24/7

“To alleviate poverty, the most efficient way is to get people jobs. But we have to look at what industries are available and what are the skills needed that will guarantee jobs,” says Raj.

Two years ago, the group realised that the solar industry was growing rapidly in Malaysia and wanted to get involved in it. They started a pilot project, getting funding to establish the Solar Academy, but the missing part was the lab, until now. (The academy’s premises were given to Sols 24/7 to use for free by a local businessman and philanthropist.)

“Traditional installers can earn RM2,200 to RM4,000 a month. And the industry is going to grow so much that even our 100 installers coming out each year are not going to be enough.

“The idea is to eventually generate our own income through installations to fund this programme, and as long as there is need for solar power, the programme will not die,” says Raj.

Part of Sols 24/7’s plan is to have solar panels installed in rural communities living without electricity.

“Over 1 million people in Malaysia still do not have access to electricity. Many of them live in villages and depend on generators, which are expensive, difficult to maintain, diesel-dependent, and cause noise and environmental pollution,” explains Raj.

“On the other hand, solar systems are very low maintenance. In fact, they come with a 25-year warranty because they hardly break down.

“So the plan is to install solar PV panels to generate enough electricity for community centres of say 100-200 people each that can benefit from it. And we will take our students who are from that village to install the panels, so should they need any maintenance work, they can do it.

“This is all part of our pay-it-forward concept,” says Raj, adding that Sols 24/7 will also supply these centres with computers and books.

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Raj Ridvan Singh, Sols 24/7 Malaysia director and CEO, showing guests the solar panels installed on the rooftop of the Sols 24/7 premises located in Segambut, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Muhamad Shahril Rosli