How to Pursue a Career in Solar Energy

It’s been a long time coming, but the solar industry is experiencing something of a renaissance, as more people are buying solar-powered products, taking interest in the environment, and seeking cheaper and more effective ways of generating electricity.

The Growth Of Solar

Although solar power has been used for centuries, it wasn’t until recently that it became a popular and viable energy source. Thanks to technological advances, cheaper solar energy products, and governments’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, especially oil.

This year saw a number of significant milestones for the solar industry. To start, there was the roll-out of the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant, the Topaz Solar Power Plant in New York State. When it came into operation in May, it was the size of a small town and generated enough electricity to power over 100,000 homes. The plant cost over $1 billion to build and is operated by the town of Salamanca in partnership with American Electric Power (AEP) and Central Hudson Gas & Electric (CH&E).

The industry also saw a new record-breaking price for solar energy. Thanks to a combination of increased demand and downward pressure from cheap competition, 2016 saw the price of solar energy drop by 24%. This was attributed to both polysilicon and solar panel prices reaching historical lows in 2016.

Where Do I Start?

If you’re looking to get into the solar industry, where should you begin? The best place to start is with a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, or engineering. Having a solid understanding of science and technology will prove beneficial, especially in today’s job market where roles are becoming increasingly specialized.

If possible, you should also consider pursuing further education. A number of jobs require you to have a post-graduate degree, so if you can gain some experience by taking a master’s degree or PhD, so much the better.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Once you’ve secured a job in the field, what’s next? The best place to find employment is in a large urban area. This is mainly due to the fact that most large cities have a thriving solar industry and a large population of people looking for jobs. In fact, over 75% of the worlds’ largest 100 cities are classified as either directly or indirectly powered by solar energy. These cities rely heavily on solar power and boast some of the greatest economies in the world. They also have a large population of scientists, engineers, and technicians looking for opportunities.

To give you an idea of what kind of job opportunities are out there, we’ve compiled a list of the top 10 highest paying jobs in the solar industry.

Photovoltaic System Design

One of the most in-demand roles in the solar industry is that of a photovoltaic system designer. A PV system designer will generally take a project from the ideation stage all the way through to the construction and commissioning of the system. During this time, the designer will work with project managers, engineers, and installers to make sure the system meets the strict requirements set out by the project owner.

It’s a fairly labor intensive role, as you’ll generally be required to travel around the country to different sites to provide on-site consultancy and ensure the system is installed and functioning correctly (hence the reason why this job pays so well).

Project Management For Photovoltaic Installations

An installer that’s also a project manager usually takes a more hands-on approach, as they’ll be in charge of physically installing the system and ensuring it’s done to the highest quality. Depending on the size of the project, they might also have to procure and commission other tradespeople (electricians, plumbers, etc) to make sure everything is done on time.

As a project manager for a photovoltaic installation, you’ll be responsible for scheduling and monitoring the work of the various tradespeople, as well as being the liaison between the project owner and the various sub-contractors.

System Design

A system designer takes a more cerebral approach, siting themselves at a desk or table and using engineering and design software to envision how the system will look and function. This role is usually done in collaboration with other members of the design team, such as architects, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers.

Essentially, the system designer will take all the information they have about the project (location, size, shape, output, etc), translate this into a working design, and then develop a set of cost estimates for the project. A typical project for a system designer might be the development of a small home solar system to provide power to a single family residence.

PV Installer

An installer takes the responsibility of actually putting the system into action. They’ll be the person to physically install the panels and connect them to the inverter, combiner, and meter. Depending on the size of the project, they might also have to procure and commission other tradespeople (electricians, plumbers, etc) to make sure everything is done on time.

In most cases, an installer will work for a company that also owns the system they’re installing, and will take on jobs as and when they come in. This can vary from small residential installations to large-scale commercial projects. The job generally requires a high level of skill and expertise, as you’ll be installing panels that can be quite complex and come with a lot of extra components (like tracking devices, for instance).

Electrician (HV)

An electrician is somebody who deals with electricity and electrical wiring, installing, repairing, and maintaining power systems and equipment. Because of the physical nature of the job and the risks associated with working with electricity, this is usually a job for people with prior experience. Although not necessarily restricted to electrical work, you might be required to do a bit of everything, from testing and commissioning new equipment, to installing new sockets and switches.

The pay for an electrician ranges from slightly to significantly above that of an average technician, depending on the size of the project. As with most jobs in the solar industry, the job outlook is excellent, with over 25,000 new jobs expected to become available by 2021.

If this sounds like a job you’re interested in pursuing, then take a look at our accredited master’s in electrical engineering and get to work!

Production Planner

A production planner takes a more managerial approach, sitting at a desk and using software to design production lines, project management, and scheduling. This person’s expertise is in creating a working plan for a manufacturing operation, whether it’s plant floor diagrams, process flow charts, or simple project schedules. The job requires a lot of mathematical and technical expertise.

A production planner’s job is to take all the various aspects of a project – from procurement all the way through to manufacturing and installation – and work out the details of how to make this happen. They might also have to travel to different sites to provide consultancy and training to the various people involved in the manufacturing process.

Sales Manager

A sales manager is generally somebody who manages a sales team, either directly or indirectly. They’ll be responsible for driving sales, ensuring contracts are fulfilled, managing supplier relations, and working with customers to ensure they’re satisfied with the service they receive.

The pay for a sales manager is generally very good, anywhere from $80,000 to $120,000+, as you’ll be working in a sales-oriented role. However, it doesn’t come without its challenges. Sometimes, you’ll need to travel abroad to make sales, dealing with foreign currencies, different time zones, and other people’s time-zones, all while trying to balance a hectic work schedule.

If this sounds like a role you’re interested in, then take a look at our accredited bachelor’s in business administration program, which gives you the education needed to succeed in this role.

For those curious about the evolution of the solar industry and how it all started, we recommend you check out these videos from the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA). They talk about the growth of the industry, as well as how solar power is affecting the country.

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