One of the newest and fastest growing career paths that’s emerged from the burgeoning field of sustainable energy infrastructure is the solar photovoltaic installer.
We live in a time of enormous economic and climatological uncertainty, but make no mistake—solar power is on the rise. According to CNBC, solar photovoltaic installation is one of the top 10 fastest-growing professions in the United States. Over the last decade alone, the solar industry has experienced an astonishing average annual growth rate of 49 percent, according to research by the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Here’s a snapshot of what that kind of growth looks like in more concrete terms: In 2012, about 120,000 Americans worked in the solar industry, according to the SEIA. By 2019, that number had more than doubled to 250,000. Unlike a lot of professions or economic predictions these days, that number is only expected to keep going up.
What Is a Solar Photovoltaic Installer?
Solar photovoltaic installers assemble and install systems that convert sunlight into electrical energy. and that are compliant with site assessment and schematics These solar panels can be ground-mounted or rooftop mounted.
They can be found on rooftops of homes and at other buildings, such as at commercial businesses, schools, and universities, where they help create useable, sustainable energy, while creating no pollution and no greenhouse emissions.
Similar job titles include:
How Much Do Solar Installers Get Paid?
You might be asking yourself, Is a solar panel installer a good job? Last year, U.S. News & Report ranked it as the 2nd best construction job, only behind construction manager.
If you’re searching for a construction job that pays well, has a skyward trajectory, and happens to be good for the environment, a career in solar photovoltaic installation may be exactly what you’ve been looking for.
Solar Photovoltaic Installer Job Description: What Does a Solar Photovoltaic Installer Do?
It’s rare to find something new under the sun in the world of construction.
Most of the skilled trades have been established for centuries. Tools and trends might change, but it’s fairly uncommon for a whole new profession to burst onto the construction scene.
The technology that undergirds solar photovoltaics has been around since as early as the 1950s, but the solar industry as a whole has only risen to prominence over the last 15 years or so. For this reason, it’s worth going into a little more detail about what exactly a solar photovoltaic installer does.
Let’s start with the basics.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) cells are made of durable semi-conductive materials that convert sunlight into electricity. A single PV cell can produce between 1 to 2 watts of energy.
A single solar panel—which is made of an interconnected chain of PV cells—is capable of producing anywhere between 250 and 370 watts of electrical energy.
A collection or array of solar panels is what’s called a solar photovoltaic system. These systems typically need to consist of 28 to 34 solar panels to fully offset the electrical bill of a residence.
In practice, the work of a solar PV installer is similar to other construction professions; which is to say that it’s very hands-on. Installers need to be proficient in the use of various tools to properly put solar PV systems in place, whether in a residential or commercial setting. They also should have a grounded understanding of wiring and circuitry so as to correctly connect the solar PV array to the electrical system. And we’ll expand on this more in the next section, but installers also need to have a strong education and working knowledge of solar technology if they are to master its most optimal configurations from one job to the next.
For example, solar PV installers are responsible for making an assessment of the environment for potential hazards to their equipment. They therefore ought to be well versed in the capabilities of their products, as well as the state and local laws that regulate their safe use. They also need to be able to map out the on-site locations with the most exposure to sunlight, and then properly position their solar arrays to take most advantage of those surfaces.
How Do I Become a Solar Photovoltaic Installer? Training, Certification Involved
The first step is to get educated. There are many paths to becoming a solar PV installer, but generally speaking, a high school diploma and at least some specialized training is recommended; either through a technical school, community college, or certification program. Many technical schools and community colleges offer programs and certification tailored in solar energy technology/technician preparation that may be helpful and can be completed in as little as one year. On the job training can also be attained through apprenticeships or job shadowing.
If you already work in construction, the leap to solar PV installer may feel more like a light hop, as many of your skills will be needed to succeed in your new career. Whatever angle you’re approaching the job from, it’s important to educate yourself about the terrain before diving in head first.
Here’s a short list of a few resources to kickstart your career as a solar PV installer:
The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners is widely regarded as the global gold standard for solar and wind certification. Though NABCEP certification may not be required for every solar PV job, it is nonetheless viewed by most employers in the renewable energy industry as “essential”. Another big selling point: Internationally recognized, NABCEP training imparts the skills and credentials you’ll need to start installing solar PV systems anywhere in the world.
A good place to start your NABCEP training is at Solar Energy International. This solar focused non-profit organization offers online classes that work around your busy schedule. Also, the first course is free.
The Solar Training Network is a national workforce development initiative with funding from the Department of Energy. Its mission is to provide training, support, and employment opportunities for people interested in entering the solar industry, especially for veterans of the U.S. military.
Each state has different licensing requirements for general contractors, as well as solar PV installers. You can check on what your state requires here.
Checkout The Solar Foundation to get an overview of the solar job opportunities in every state.
What Does the Solar Future Look Like? Job Outlook
Slowly but surely, the world is tilting toward the sun. In recent years, governments around the globe—from local municipalities in the United States to the 27 member nations of the European Union—have begun to actively transition away from fossil fuels in favor of cleaner, less destructive energy alternatives.
The U.S. added 3.8 gigawatts worth of solar power in the third quarter of 2020, bringing the total national capacity to 88.9 gigawatts. So far that equates to about 16 million homes outfitted with solar photovoltaic energy systems. In 2019, solar accounted for 43 percent of all new electric capacity added to the grid.
Granted, we have a long way to go before the sun reigns supreme. Solar power currently only makes up about 2 percent of the entire U.S. energy profile, but that piece of the pie is growing every day. Solar technology and energy storage systems have advanced to a point of greater capacity, efficiency, and output than ever before. Another important factor: Once notoriously expensive, solar photovoltaic systems are now remarkably cheap.
In fact, a slate of recent reports shows that over the last decade, solar has become the cheapest form of electricity on the market. What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic has had the unexpected effect of making solar tech even cheaper than original projections indicated. Over the next five years, solar system prices are expected to drop another 17 percent in the residential market, 16 percent for commercial, and 20 percent for utility-scale installations.
What does this all mean for construction workers? The solar panel installer job outlook is very bright. When compared to other jobs, career prospects in solar panel installation are growing at a much faster rate than average, a striking 51% from 2019-2029 with around 12,000 openings needed to be filled. Solar photovoltaic installation remains in the top 10 fastest growing professions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For comparison, the BLS notes that the average projected growth rate for most other professions is only 4 percent.
Bottom line: The future for solar is bright. Whether you’re new to construction or a seasoned pro looking to start fresh, a career as a solar PV installer may be the change you’re looking for.