How to Break Into the Solar Industry
The belief that jobs in the solar industry are limited to working on the roof or chasing after sales leads is not really accurate today as other opportunities are available and increasing, according to solar career expert Liz Merry.
Merry, owner of Verve Solar Consulting in Davis, Calif., has been sharing insights and advice about the solar industry since 2001 through numerous courses, articles and blogs. Promising no hype and no panaceas, she offered solid advice for career seekers in the solar photovoltaics (PV) industry at a recent workshop at the California Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego, Calif.
Merry outlined four major steps every solar job seeker should follow to understand where he or she may fit into the industry:
#1 – Understand the solar PV industry
Getting a broad understanding of the solar industry is a daunting task, but Merry, a former marketing director and education coordinator, said she did so with an “intense and consistent tracking of all things solar.” During the workshop, she adeptly and concisely covered the basics of electric energy and sources, how solar PV systems work and the federal, California and local policies that are driving the solar industry.
Upcoming government programs for everything from greenhouse gas emission reductions to net zero building requirements give Merry the most hope for strong growth in the solar industry and the closely aligned field of energy efficiency -– a part of the building and retrofit industry she expects will expand by 300 percent over the next few years.
California utilities are getting into solar in a big way to meet the state mandated renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that requires increased production of energy from renewable sources. The RPS calls for an increase to 33 percent by 2020. As utilities scramble to meet the requirement, they are creating significant numbers of jobs in areas of engineering, systems design, construction, operations and maintenance.
Residential and commercial construction present greater opportunities for employment because more stringent energy efficiency codes are coming online. All new residential construction in California must be zero net energy by 2020 and commercial construction must do so by 2030. In addition, several state and local government programs supporting renewable energy incentives and loans will require energy-efficiency components. All of this construction and retrofitting will also be a boon for the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) industry as well as creating jobs for energy raters and inspectors to measure and verify construction.
#2 – Apply your skills to solar
A good indication of growth in the solar industry is that there has been an 800 percent increase in the job listings with solar in the title or description on the employment website Indeed.com since 2005. While most jobs are in sales, installation and marketing, Merry says you should “look up, down and across the solar industry value chain for where to position yourself.”
Upstream opportunities are in manufacturing equipment for solar PV production, materials processing, system engineering, module manufacturing, product testing and the manufacturing of the systems that support solar PV, such as inverters, racking and connectors. Downstream jobs range from project investors, financing services and incentive administration to policy and program management and training.
Within the mainstream of the solar PV industry, the core jobs focus in five areas: system integrators and packagers; distributors; installers, service and repair technicians; sales representatives and marketers; and estimators, site surveyors and assessors.
No matter which job you’re considering, Merry has a single mantra for success: “Network, learn, share!” And, she says, while working in the solar industry may be attractive for a whole host of cause factors — such as eco-friendly and renewable — the reality is that applicants may find lower salaries because the field is relatively new and so many people are interested in the opportunities.
#3 – Identify the resources
There’s no shortage of solar industry training. For installers alone, there are more than 130 approved training providers nationwide, Merry pointed out. She recommends selecting a program certified by the Institute for Sustainable Power Quality that sets high standards for both classroom and online providers. You can find a list of ISPQ-accredited trainers at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council Web site.
Hands-on solar training courses run two days to six weeks and may cost from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. California community colleges are the best value, but take more time and are often hard to get into due to their popularity. There are also free online webinars and classroom workshops offered by major utilities, workforce programs, unions and educational centers such as CCSE.
Once you have training, you may want to obtain a sustainability certification, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program, the Residential Energy Services Network’s Green Rater program or any number of organizations that offer Home Energy Rating System (HERS) certification.
#4 – Next steps toward a career
The key to successfully entering the solar industry is getting involved. You can do that by continuing researching and training, going to conferences and events, joining local and national groups, reading industry magazines and websites, making personal contacts and volunteering to show your commitment. And while you are doing this, remember Merry’s number one piece of advice – network, learn, share – it might just get you that solar job you want.
Solar Training Resources
- Renewable Energy Training Catalog from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council – regularly updated and the most comprehensive nationwide directory
- Solar Energy International and Solar Living Institute are the largest in the western U.S. offering classroom and online courses
- RenewableEnergyWorld.com – magazine, podcast, conferences
- SolarBuzz.com – longest running solar-focused analysis firm
- GreenJobs.com –jobs in solar, wind, biomass, hydo, hydrogen and fuel cell industries
- GreenTechMedia.com – e-news, webcasts and research on clean technologies
- PVResources.com – comprehensive background information
- EERE.energy.gov – Dept. of Energy technical reports and other web links
- GreenCareerCentral.com – tips and strategies for green career job seekers
- GreenCareerNetwork.org – job resources and Southern California green job listings
- CleanTechies – cleantech news, jobs, events & much more, including solar resources
- American Solar Energy Society (three California chapters) – Publishes SolarToday magazine, holds national conference and coordinates the annual Solar Homes Tour
- Solar Energy Industries Association (national), CalSEIA (California) – Main business association for all solar technologies
- Interstate Renewable Energy Council – Promotes renewable energy policies and programs and provides e-news and free webinars
- Solar Electric Power Association – Provides webinars and educational resources
- Other nonprofit/advocacy groups to check out: California Solar Center, California Center for Sustainable Energy, Solar Alliance, GRID Alternatives
photos: Argonne National Laboratory, Chuck Colgan
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