The Solar Energy Job Market

February 15, 2022

The clean energy industry has advanced at a rapid pace over the last decade. Although that growth seemed to happen at break-neck speed, we can expect an even greater increase in the years to come.

The United States currently produces an impressive 11% of its energy through domestic wind and solar energy, according to the US Energy Administration. It took great measures to get here as renewable energy generation quadrupled in the last decade alone. This acceleration has helped us learn about technologies, accounting, business models, engineering, construction, applications, project development, and other efficiencies necessary to make the economic case for clean energy. The solar energy industry alone is expecting 400% in annual installation growth by 2030, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association research data. Based on these projections, the United States will increase our solar installations from less than 20 GW per year to more than 80 GW per year by 2030. To make this possible, we will need to make significant investments in people and job training.

How are we going to now accelerate job growth in the specialized areas our industry requires? Let’s look at the types of actual tangible jobs the solar energy industry will create.

Policy

As the industry accelerates, we will need policy experts to help craft the renewable energy legislation of the future. These key players will need to establish national standards for land use, zoning, permitting, and reliable grid interconnection. Currently, there is a glut of solar energy projects stuck in various stages of permitting or interconnection approval. There are inconsistent standards for interconnection approval across different Regional Transmission Operators, Independent System Operators, utility companies, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This trend must change if the renewable energy industry is going to move forward.  We need people who are passionate about creating fair, reasonable, and consistent policy, and regulatory practices. As an industry, we need greater collaboration at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the US International Trade Commission, the US Department of Energy, and every utility regulatory commission across the country. Policy and regulatory role expansion is needed more than ever at key organizations who support renewable energy or develop policies for our energy industries.

Development Jobs

Development refers to the effort of developing a property for siting a renewable energy generation facility. To accelerate the pace at which we install solar projects, we need to develop solar assets more quickly and reliably. A developer tends to be this very special breed of human who has no problem diving into financial and regulatory details, enjoys working with utilities, and has an ability to connect with landowners and permitting authorities. Solar developers also tend to come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including finance, engineering, business, and other educational areas. If there is one thing that makes a solar developer unique, it is that they remain optimistic in the face of uncertainty. We need more people like this developing solar energy generation assets. And the solar assets of the future will be dual purpose: they will provide a location to create clean energy, and they will also provide habitat for pollinators, grazing for sheep, and farming (also known as agrivoltaics) in between the solar arrays.

Engineering

The need for Engineering talent in the solar energy industry cannot be overstated. Solar sites are constantly being planned and optimized with the support of several technical design software products. Engineers skilled at using these software products are essential to intelligent and informed decision making. Any technical person who can help optimize soft and hard costs on solar projects is a valuable addition to a solar company. Solar companies need civil, structural, electrical, and mechanical engineers, particularly with experience in solar energy or related industries. A great engineering team is also comprised of designer drafters, product experts, technicians, and other roles that do not necessarily require engineering degrees. There is a great need for skilled engineers and technicians in the solar industry and we must continue to train the next generation of solar and wind energy engineers.

Construction

Deployment remains the key step in commissioning new solar facilities, so it is not surprising that opportunities in construction have grown significantly. The solar industry needs people who can help build the electrical and mechanical systems which comprise solar and wind facilities. This can mean operating machinery such as earthmoving equipment or pile drivers, assembling mounting systems, installing solar modules (of course) and performing all the wiring, testing, and startup required to fully place these projects in service. In addition, construction requires Project Managers, Construction Managers, Site Superintendents, Commissioning Technicians, and other supporting roles located in the office and the field. Entering the clean energy industry in the construction realm provides a great entry point to understanding the technologies, the players, the challenges, and the opportunities.

Operations and Maintenance

The expected investment returns on a solar or wind facility are only as good as the Operations and Maintenance plan. Fortunately, the variety of service providers who delivery Operations and Maintenance services has grown extensively over recent years. Living with and operating a solar plant or wind facility can provide greater understanding of how the projects operate in one geographic area versus another. The experience in operating projects can demonstrate how these facilities make money, whether they meet performance objectives, and ultimately how they make financial sense. Because the industry is expanding at such a substantial rate, there are many open opportunities to build efficiencies in how these plants are monitored and maintained. There are also opportunities for dealing with the repowering of solar plants, recycling of used modules, and repurposing of expired solar facilities. Many types of career backgrounds, including construction, engineering, maintenance, and other technical backgrounds can lead to a job in solar or wind O&M.

Asset Management

An asset manager deals with managing accounts with service providers, issuing the monthly billing, paying for the insurance and communications, coordinating with the O&M team, and providing overall direction to ensure the facility meets its financial objectives. The asset management effort often falls to an accountant or is split between an accounting team and the O&M team. But overall, asset management is a specific requirement to keep the solar facility operational and profitable.

Administration

There are many types of administrative roles in the clean energy industry which are important for leading a part of a business or coordinate activities between different functions. These roles include Executive Assistants, Human Resources Managers, Information Technology Managers, and many more. If we are going to quadruple annual deployments in the next 8 years, we are going to need many people on the scene to help us get there.

Finance and Accounting

Every solar or wind energy company needs to have a good handle on financial planning and how the organization is sustaining itself. Accounting and financial professionals are the key to this success. There is marginal room for error in the energy industry because profit margins are compressed due to competition. Ultimately, this is healthy, but it creates a need for wise financial planning. Additionally, Structured Finance is very important for the efficient and reliable structuring of project transactions. We rely on finance and accounting professionals in the renewable energy industry and advancing these roles across our industry is key to long-term success.

In short, there is opportunity for growth for anyone with some skills and a passion for creating the clean energy economy. Find you passion and climb on board, its going to be a rewarding journey!

 

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