As the demand for renewable energy dramatically reduced the price of solar photovoltaics (PV), the demand for trained solar energy technicians has sharply increased.
Solar energy demand surges
Solar energy is growing at a rapid rate, up from 5 percent of the U.S. energy mix in 2015 to 18 percent in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). This is only set to continue, spurred by renewable portfolio standards and solar carve-outs mandates that certain percentages of a state’s energy mix come from renewable energy and solar.
Wind and solar are the fastest-growing power sources, making up 62 percent of new power generation investments in 2018. Utility-scale solar will grow by 10 percent this year and is expected to grow 17 percent in 2020 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Small-scale solar will grow by 44 percent over the next two years.
With solar’s rapid rise, the price of PV has fallen dramatically. From $76 per watt in the 1970s to less than $1 per watt today for large-scale systems, solar is less than or equal to energy from fossil fuels. This is because the price of manufacturing modules has reduced steeply. For every doubling of production, costs have declined 20 percent.
Solar PV installer opportunities abound
What does this mean for techs and engineers? Those who are trained in PV will have job growth and business expansion. Job growth in the solar industry is more than nine times faster than in the overall U.S. economy. Solar energy jobs were the second highest in the energy industry in 2016, according to the Solar Foundation. The long-term trend for solar energy jobs is strong. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of PV installers will rise by 105 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than other occupations.
Qualified individuals, particularly those who complete PV training courses, will have excellent job prospects. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) , the leading credentialing body for renewable energy technicians, is a good place to start when looking for training.
The PV job market is strongest in states with plentiful sun and supportive policies including California, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Florida, and Arizona. Other states, however, are seeing rising job growth, as shown in The Solar Foundation’s 2018 Solar Jobs by State map.
What does a solar energy technician do?
NABCEP categorizes the four categories of a PV installation professional as system design, installation, system commissioning, and operations and maintenance. PV techs need to test the modules, wiring, inverters and batteries, and verify performance. Diagnosing a system requires knowledge of solar conditions at your site and how a PV system works.
Top five solar tasks performed, and tools and software used
|1||Test solar system electrical components (continuity, grounding, insulation resistance)||Digital multimeter, insulation resistance tester||Computerized maintenance management system (CMMS)|
|2||Visual inspection of modules, racking, combiner boxes, inverters and batteries||Infrared camera||Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software|
|3||Construct PV structure and racking (roof, ground, pole)||Angle finder, drill, flashing||Cloud-based online office suite|
|4||Compare site conditions and expected performance with actual||Pyranometer, current transformers, solar pathfinder||Modeling software (PVWatts Calculator, SAM), power monitoring and communications system|
|5||Troubleshoot trackers and repair motor wear and bearing failure||Motor grease||Programmable logic controller connected to energy management system (SCADA)|
How Fluke helps PV installers
As more PV systems come on line and older systems age, we need techs to operate and maintain them. A PV tech checks the voltage, current, resistance, and grounding of circuits thousands of times using the Fluke 87V Industrial Multimeter. One of the most important parts of the job is diagnosing faults, and the Fluke 1587 FC Insulation Tester allows techs to uncover hidden trouble spots that could cause shock and fire. PV modules can overheat from hot spots where current accumulates on a bad cell, and techs can quickly find the source with the Fluke Ti480 PRO Infrared Camera.
About the expert
Michael Ginsberg is a solar expert, trainer for the U.S. Department of State, author and Doctor of Engineering Science candidate at Columbia University. He is also chief executive officer of Mastering Green, where he has trained nearly a thousand technicians worldwide in solar PV installation, maintenance, and operation.