By: Monica Gomez
The solar industry is growing rapidly in the United States, thanks in large part to the U.S. Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative. Began in 2011, the SunShot Initiative set out to reposition the United States as a solar leader by making solar power widespread and affordable. Sure enough, in the past three years, the cost of solar electricity has fallen from 21.4 cents per kilowatt hour (KWh) in 2010 to just 11.2 cents/KWh in 2013—60% of the way to SunShot’s goal of only $0.06/KWh.
With more affordable solar energy spreading across the United States, the industry has already seen an increase in demand for qualified solar panel engineers. Solar engineering may be a relatively new field within engineering, but as the demand for solar grows, so too will the demand for engineers—to research, develop and implement new solar technology. As reported by The Refrigeration School, solar is the quickest-growing segment in the United States’ green energy market, and the solar industry actually has the fastest job growth in the country. In fact, according to the Solar Foundation, 53% of manufacturing firms reported having difficulty hiring qualified solar engineers in 2010. The Bureau of Labor Statistics names engineers as one of the most sought-after occupations in the solar industry.
Who Hires Solar Engineers?
Solar panel manufacturers are the primary employers of solar engineers. These companies need solar engineers to develop economical solutions to technical problems, specify precise functional requirements, design and test new products, and evaluate a design’s effectiveness, cost and safety. Solar Power World compiled a list of the Top 400 Solar Contractors of 2014 based on total megawatts installed as of the previous year. The list details how many employees each company has, its primary market, primary service, location and years in business.
FirstSolar, based in Tempe, Arizona, came in at number one with a total of 2,887 megawatts installed and 4,850 employees. It’s worth noting that FirstSolar also occupied the number one spot on the 2013 Top 250 Solar Contractors list, and that the list grew substantially from 2013 to 2014, marking the continued expansion of the solar industry. Of the three markets a company could claim as their primary market—utility, commercial and residential—only Solar City provides primarily residential solar services in the top 10 spots.
Solar City’s focus is on bringing solar panels to residential rooftops. FirstSolar, on the other hand, develops, engineers, constructs and operates some of the world’s largest photovoltaic power grids and PV plants. The companies differ in their scope but both employ qualified solar engineers to keep their businesses profitable. Commercial manufacturers and general construction companies also rank as significant employers of solar engineers.
Types of Solar Engineers
Solar manufacturing companies rely on engineers to develop and test new technologies. Employers generally require some experience to be considered for a position; the 2011 California Occupational Guide for solar energy systems engineers estimates that most companies prefer between 2 and 10 years of experience. Some companies also require vocational training or an apprenticeship, and some train from within. Because solar engineering is an emerging field, many solar engineers apply previous skillsets to their solar engineering jobs. As Solar City states on their Careers page, the technology needed to propel solar into the mainstream doesn’t exist yet. It’s up to engineers to build it.
There are different types of engineers in any field; within solar, the BLS defines a need for materials engineers, chemical engineers, electrical engineers, industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, computer software developers and engineering technicians. Klaus Dohring, President of Green Sun Rising, an Ontario-based developer and supplier of solar PV and solar thermal, stated in an interview, “Generally, mechanical and electrical engineers are desired for solar companies.” When asked what he looks for in potential engineering candidates, he replied, “Good educational qualification. Initiative, positive outlook, not afraid of hands-on work.” Most solar firms also indicate that a company-wise passion for renewable energy, a penchant for innovation, an emphasis on individual integrity and an ability to work productively in a team are desirable qualities in solar engineering employees.
Educational Background and Experience
The U.S. Department of Energy provides some insight into employer education preferences for solar occupations, based on a chart from a 2008 report. When hiring solar designers and engineers, 46% of employers prefer that candidates hold a bachelor’s degree, 31% prefer an associate degree and 10% prefer work experience. Because of the complex and nuanced nature of the work, some companies will also require special licensure, certifications, or a master’s or doctoral degree. Engineering technicians and entry-level engineers may be hired as interns or junior team members to gain experience. By comparison, other occupations within the solar industry require less formal education but more work experience. For example, to be considered as a PV installer, only 2% of employers prefer a bachelor’s degree, while 57% prefer hands-on work experience.
Sales and marketing is another subset of solar to consider. Bill Seavey, founder of DIY solar company PowerFromSun.com, provides small-scale solar electricity for residential use in California. After being in the solar business for 25 years, he says, “I think this industry is expanding so quickly that any engineer—theoretical, structural, architectural etc.—would be welcome in the field. Especially one with sales experience, since marketing to businesses and even residential homeowners is where it’s at.” Seavey also mentioned that at nearby College of Engineering, CalPoly San Luis Obispo, many students were experimenting with solar projects, and have even won competitions for solar-powered satellites and vehicles. “You can be sure they will be getting jobs,” Seavey said.
Support for Solar
Another factor to consider when applying to solar companies is location. Many of the top 400 solar contractors of 2014 were located in California, where there is ample sunlight and political support for solar. Dohring mentioned, on the other hand, that Ontario—already a cloudy locale—lacks the political support to sustain a solar industry; therefore, solar engineering jobs were “all dried up.” Dohring expressed much dismay at the lack of opportunities to bring solar to life in Canada.
In the United States, the case for solar is strong. At the 2014 SunShot Grand Challenge Summit, the Energy Department reportedly reiterated its commitment to “leveraging America’s abundant solar energy resources [by] driving research, manufacturing and market solutions to support widespread expansion of the nation’s solar market.” Market trends from the 2014 Annual Energy Outlook report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration identify solar as the country’s leading renewable energy source, increasing from less than 8 GW in 2012 to an expected 48 GW in 2040. Although solar engineering may be an emerging field, it looks to be a growing one. Solar engineering will likely remain an in-demand field that requires highly skilled, qualified and experienced engineers, as solar continues its promising expansion as a source of mainstream renewable energy.
Monica Gomez is a creative writer, tutor, and artist.