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How to start a career in solar energy

How to start a career in solar energy

The sun. It's a source of light, life and for some, a career. Working in solar energy means not staring at a computer all day, hands-on work, not having the boss constantly looking over your shoulder and solving real problems. Oh, and it's doing something good for the Earth as well. Ever wonder what a typical day is like for someone who works in solar energy? Want to know how much you'll earn? What about where those jobs are? We've got you covered.

A long history with solar

Humans have been harnessing this power in some form for thousands of years, from building fires to heating houses. But, it wasn't until 1888 that the first solar cell was created and it took nearly 100 years after that before solar energy was available for commercial use.

The Solar Boom

These days, solar panels are popping up faster than musical parody videos. Well, maybe not that fast but fast enough to really drive demand for jobs. The Solar Foundation, the top dogs in research on the solar industry, found that 142,698 people in the U.S. had jobs in the solar industry in 2013. The bonus? It seems like the demand for clean energy is just starting to take off, and as it becomes more popular, prices drop which makes it even more popular. It's a whole cycle, see? It's so popular that Greentech Media reports the U.S. is now installing one solar photovoltaic (PV) system every four minutes.

Working in the solar industry

To get into the solar industry, you don't have to have an engineering background either. Solar energy professionals come from a variety of backgrounds, mechanics, former military, construction, office jobs and others. A knack for working with your hands is important as is a good education. Also key: wanting to work outdoors, controlling your own schedule, being able to follow (safety) rules and a preference for hands-on work.

As for actual jobs, it's easy to think that working in the solar energy industry is all about installation and construction. And, many entry-level jobs are just that. But, there are other options. Research, surveying and supervising are all career paths in the industry available after you've put in time.

Here are a few examples of job titles in the solar industry:

  • Installer Supervisor
  • Field Technician Project Manager
  • Development Engineer

Where is the work?

Another plus to this field, you're not confined to one location for your career; jobs in this industry are popping up all over the country. New sites need to be built and maintained, meaning employers are looking for qualified candidates to move and work at these locations. NRG Energy recently finished the largest solar panel plant in the world in Arizona, covering 2,400 acres of land. You can bet they'll need workers to maintain the site!

How much do solar panel installers get paid?

Solar panel or solar photovoltaic (PV) installers spend their day in the great outdoors, work with power tools and help make the world a little better. But what do they get paid?

Pay always depends on experience, job location and the current economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the middle point of pay for PV installers is $37,900. When comparing the full range of pay, the lowest 10 percent of workers earn $26,250 and the top 10 percent earn $57,980.

  • Top 10 percent: $57,980
  • Midpoint: $37,900
  • Lowest 10 percent: $26,250

The future

By all accounts, the solar power industry is growing at a rapid rate. 2015 marked the third consecutive year in which solar employment growth was at 20 percent and the U.S. solar industry currently creates jobs at a rate 12 times higher than employment growth in the overall economy.*

At the same time, fossil fuels still are being used to produce the majority of energy we consume. This is polluting our planet, and unlike sunshine, fossil fuels are not renewable. Right now the demand for solar energy is greater than the supply. Getting more people working in the solar industry can help make up some of that difference.

* Source: 2015 National Solar Jobs Census, The Solar Foundation