Solar Technician Careers
Although the first solar panel was invented in 1884, the technology did not experience significant growth until the mid-1990s. Today’s solar panels consist of lenses, mirrors and solar tracking systems, which work together to focus a large area of light into a small beam. The beam is then converted into an electric current by photovoltaic cells. This complex technology is becoming more and more prevalent as a clean and efficient source of renewable power.
In the modern world, worries about climate change and the desire to shed economic reliance on fossil fuels have led more and more people to seek environmentally friendly, potentially off-grid alternatives for electrical power. As such, the technology is booming, meaning a career as a solar technician career comes with a lot of potential for future growth.
Also known as photovoltaic (PV) installers, solar technicians help consumers achieve a more sustainable way of living and contribute to the wellbeing of the planet by reducing our collective carbon footprint. Solar technicians work primarily on systems that convert the energy of the sun into electricity. In the simplest terms, the job involves the assembly, installation and maintenance of solar panels and solar tiles. If you’ve been wondering how to become a solar technician, this article has the information you need to get started in this exciting career.
Working as a Solar Technician
With the demand for renewable energy on the rise, solar power is a good career bet, as it is a safe and reliable producer of energy, especially in areas with good sun exposure. Solar power is cheaper than fossil fuels and free of pollution, making it the perfect choice for environmentally conscious consumers. Of course, living in an area with an abundance of sun exposure is an advantage and increases the technology’s ability to work efficiently.
So, what is it like working as a solar technician? Solar technicians are required to have a great deal of physical stamina. As such, physical fitness is a must for those entering the trade. Regular physical tasks for solar technicians include climbing ladders and working on rooftops, in cellars and crawlspaces, while using tools and performing physical tasks. Tools and equipment will need to be carried from place to place, as will the solar panels themselves. The job can involve long hours, especially during peak construction season, meaning you will need some endurance.
Working as a solar technician involves working with high-voltage power systems. Attaining an in-depth knowledge of electrical systems and safety is vital for anyone entering the trade. This knowledge will be put to work regularly as you do the work of installing, troubleshooting and maintaining this complicated technology. Solar technicians regularly use specialized tools such as infrared cameras, digital multimeters, clamp meters, insulation testers and battery analyzers to complete their daily tasks. More commonplace tools include drills, saws, wrenches and screwdrivers.
Solar technicians perform a wide variety of tasks. Daily job duties may include installing solar modules and panels, applying weather sealant to the panels, performing routine maintenance on solar power systems and installing support systems for panels. In some places, solar technicians might also connect solar systems to the power grid, a task that can also be performed by an electrician.
Aside from construction work, solar technicians may also be involved with the design of solar panel systems. This work will require a working knowledge of engineering and design and often be completed using design software such as AutoCAD. Design work will also involve the use of specific mathematic formulas, as well as a familiarity with building materials and the tools used to build solar systems and their supports.
Working in the trade requires critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well as an aptitude for technical work. Solar technicians will need to learn to read blueprints and be well-versed in local building codes and regulations. Activities may also include preparing estimates for potential clients or bidding on larger jobs.
The trade has specific risks for illness and injury due to its physical nature. Technicians are at risk from burns, falls, electrical shocks and muscle strains. Therefore, obtaining the proper education is vital for solar technicians, as is the use of protective equipment while on the job.
Training for Solar Technicians
Prior to seeking training as a solar technician, it will be essential to have earned a high school diploma or equivalent. It would also be advisable to take courses in electricity and mechanics, either through a high school curriculum or a local trade school. Once you have achieved the prerequisites, you can seek education in the trade through a reputable training program. Training generally takes the form of either a certificate program or a two-year degree and can be done in person, online or through a combination of the two. A few of the most highly recommended programs for solar technicians include:
- Crowder College in Neosho, Missouri, offers a certificate, an Associate of Arts degree and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Alternative Energy. All of these programs focus on learning through classroom instruction and applied research projects. Cooperative programs are available at Missouri University and Pittsburgh State University.
- Century College in West Campus, West Virginia, offers four different programs for those interested in solar power: an Associate in Applied Science for Energy Technician Specialist, a Certificate for Advance Photovoltaic Energy Systems, a Certificate for Solar Assessor, and a Certificate for Solar Sales and Marketing. The coursework is a mixture of day, evening and online courses, which can be taken either full-time or part-time.
- The Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Solar Training Academy in Custer, Wisconsin, offers courses in solar technical subjects. Classes include Basic Photovoltaics, PV Site Assessment and PV System Design, labs and an exam preparation review. Courses can be taken one at a time, allowing them to fit more readily into a busy schedule.
- Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, offers a Photovoltaic Systems Certificate. The program consists of two 40-hour courses, one 20-hour course and a certifying examination. The college is also registered as a provider for the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) certification exam, which can be taken upon successfully completing an approved photovoltaic-associate course.
- Delaware Technical Community College with campuses in Dover, Georgetown, Stanton and Wilmington, Delaware, offers an associate degree in Renewable Energy Solar. The program is a connected degree, with the possibility to transfer to Wilmington University to earn a bachelor’s degree. Coursework focuses on providing students with real-world, hands-on experience through work with a local energy company.
- Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida, offers an Associate in Science degree in Electronics Engineering Technology Solar Energy Specialization and a Technical Certificate in Solar Energy.
Licensing and Certifications for Solar Technicians
Many states still do not require a license or provide oversight for solar technicians, but some do. However, even among states that don’t have a specific solar technician license, those in the trade may be required to apply for a contractor’s license or be a licensed electrician. Additionally, licensure can be required by some cities or localities. It is essential to research the requirements in the areas where you wish to work in order to remain in compliance with the law at all times.
In states that require licensing for solar technicians, you may need to seek accreditation as a prerequisite. However, required or not, credentialing is a good career move for any solar technician. Acquiring certification is a great way to showcase your knowledge and professionalism to potential employers and clients alike.
A popular choice for solar technician accreditation includes the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABPC). The NABPC offers three types of certifications including NABPC Associate: Photovoltaic, NABPC Associate: Solar Heating, and NABPC Associate: Small Wind.
The NABPC has three pathways for exam eligibility: educational, experience and entry-level conversion, which requires an NABPC Entry-Level Achievement Award. A directory of certified professionals can be found on their website.
Salary Expectations for Solar Technicians
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), annual wages for solar technicians ranged from $31,600 to $63,880 in 2019. This wide range in salaries may reflect experience, qualifications and localities. Most importantly, the figures show great potential for earnings growth throughout your career. Industry-wide, the mean annual wage for solar technicians was $46,850 that same year.
The BLS also tracks and compares salary data for solar technicians in various locations throughout the country. According to their research, the top-paying cities for solar technicians in 2019 were Santa Cruz, CA, San Francisco, CA, Honolulu, HI, and Visalia, CA. Top-paying states included Oregon, Hawaii, Texas, Massachusetts and Arizona. It should be noted that, as a new and growing career field, not all states were able to submit trade-specific data to the BLS for review, meaning these results are somewhat incomplete.
Data collected by the BLS also include a comparison of wages and concentration of jobs in specific industries. According to their data, the industries with the highest number of solar technicians include building equipment contractors, utility system construction, electric power generation and exterior building construction. The industries in which solar technicians earn the highest wages include utility system construction, specialty trade contractors, building equipment contractors, electric power generation companies and employment services. The overlap in the two sets of data may reflect the growing nature of solar energy careers and is likely to change as the trade grows in popularity.
The BLS estimates that there were 11,080 solar technicians employed in the United States in 2019. Overall, the data for the career are promising, in that solar technicians have the ability to make a comfortable living. Additionally, the job holds the potential for wage increases based on experience and qualifications, meaning career growth is highly possible for those in the field. In fact, technicians with the right qualifications may have the opportunity to be promoted to project supervisor or manager.
Career Growth Projections and Opportunities for Solar Technicians
For solar technicians, the job outlook is outstanding. According to Projections Central, the trade is looking at a projected long-term growth of 62.9 percent between 2018 and 2028. This translates to an expected increase in job openings to the tune of 15,800 new jobs over the 10-year period. Additionally, the career is expected to see an average of 2,200 job openings annually. However, annual job openings do not entirely reflect industry growth, as estimates include job openings created by those who are retiring or otherwise leaving the trade permanently. Although this career is growing, finding employment may be competitive, as the technology is still less than common and the trade is somewhat limited in nature.
Job growth in the solar industry is not a new phenomenon. Solar industry jobs have been quickly growing since 2010 due to a number of factors. One in particular is the Solar Investment Tax Credit, a 30% federal credit that can be used to install a system. Additionally, increased awareness of environmental issues and the steadily decreasing costs of equipment have spurred the technology’s growth and allowed the trade to flourish. By all indications, there is every reason to believe this trade is sustainable for a long-term career.
Potential employers for solar technicians include Sunpro Solar, South Coast Solar, SunPower, Sunrun, Leidos and Horizon Solar Power. However, with new technologies and companies popping up regularly, there may be many more employment opportunities for solar technicians in the coming years. Moreover, there is potential in this career to work as an independent contractor, freelancing your skills and making your own schedule.
Your Future as a Solar Technician
There is no doubt that interest in renewable energy is on the rise, and the increased demand for such technology has allowed a new industry to bloom and thrive. If the industry continues to grow on its current trajectory, the career has the potential for a great deal of opportunity. Whether you want to find a secure job in the industry or pursue self-employment, this career choice could be the path to the future stability you’ve always hoped to achieve.