By Nichole Naoum
Contrary to popular belief, humans utilizing solar energy to our benefit is not new. Incorporating the sun’s energy using passive solar in homes, bathhouses and sunrooms has been in practice for several thousand years. The use of sun rays to light fires using a magnifying glass can be traced back to the 7th century BC, and the Greeks were said to have used a “heat ray” powered by a collection of mirrors redirecting the sun to win the Siege of Syracuse in the 3rd century BC.
One of the most significant leaps forward for solar power was in 1839 when French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic (PV) effect while experimenting with a cell comprised of metal electrodes in a conducting solution. In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritz designed the first working selenium solar cell. And, in 1905, Albert Einstein brought the world’s attention to solar energy by introducing us to the quantum theory of light and the nature of photons.
The first solar array would not become commercially available for another fifty years, with a scandalously expensive price point of $300 per watt. However, by 1975 the cost had decreased to roughly $100 per watt, and the price has continued to drop by at least 10% each year since. Today, using a standard 250-watt panel, energy costs range from $0.30 to $2.20 per watt.
Why Solar Energy Is More Important Now than Ever
Even with a staggering 92.7 billion solar panels in use throughout the world today, solar energy production currently accounts for only 1% of the global electricity generation. Yet the emergence of renewable energy is energizing world markets in an unprecedented way, with the United States, China, India, Japan and Vietnam making strides in positioning themselves as leaders in solar energy production.
With industry growth comes job opportunities. Solar has experienced an average annual growth rate of 42% in the last decade, with 230,000-plus workers in the United States, more than the coal, oil and natural gas industries combined.
One of the biggest challenges with a rapidly developing industry is learning how to become a part of it. To help, we’ve put together information on some of the fastest-growing careers in the solar energy industry for all employment and education levels.
The solar energy industry offers a variety of career opportunities and paths. For those without a college degree and looking to get their foot in the door, a career as a solar installer is a great start. Solar installers assemble, install and maintain solar panel systems, learning while on-the-job for a year in an apprenticeship-style training process.
The job is a very physical one, involving measuring, cutting, assembling, and bolting structural framing and solar modules, in addition to performing minor electrical work, such as checking currents. When not onsite at an installation job, they may also be performing maintenance and system checks at numerous locations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. median pay range is $46,470 per year and is expected to grow by an incredible 52% over the next decade.
For those with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a strong desire to work in renewable energy, the field of solar engineering is an ideal fit. Solar engineers have a range of responsibilities that span from designing communication systems between photovoltaic panels and the systems that manage them to optimizing those designs based on incentives, local regulations and environmental restrictions.
According to Tom Tansy, Chairman of SunSpec Alliance, “The solar industry really needs people with IT skills. This is one of the last sectors to be taken over by automation. Once a system is designed and built, they need to be automated as the technology will touch every aspect of the supply chain.”
The U.S. national median pay range for engineers with a bachelor’s degree is approximately $100,000 per year and, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, is expected to grow by 7% over the next decade.
The power grid needs to be stable to make the most of our solar power potential. However, future grid operation will require different skills, methods and technologies to make renewable energy commonplace. That’s where experienced, top-level engineers come in, who tend to work in more theoretical areas like power grid planning and research and who typically possess a graduate degree in engineering.
Nikola Milivojevic, a lead instructor for UCSD Extension’s Power Systems Engineering certificate program, says, “the ideal candidate must be able to integrate everything from system testing, system compliance, mechanical engineering, and chemical engineering, and understand how these functions work together.”
The U.S. national median pay range for a power systems engineer with a master’s degree is approximately $95,329 per year, and job growth is also expected to increase by 7% over the next decade.
The Future of Solar
With climate change bearing down on us, creating sustainable solutions that minimize our carbon footprint and reduce emissions fast has become crucial. Solar power is an ideal renewable resource. As manufacturing costs decrease, photovoltaic panels become more efficient, and humanity embraces the need to change, this “alternative” energy resource will become the standard that lights our way through the 21st century and beyond.