More than 200,000 American workers are employed in the solar industry. Solar industry jobs increased by 123 percent from 2010 to 2015 according to The Solar Foundation – and not just for panel installers and engineers. A wide range of industries have opportunities in solar, including manufacturing and installation, research and development, finance and real estate, law and software development. Learn why careers in solar make sense for the environment, for your wallet and for the future.
It’s really finding a fit for what your skill set is. Don’t think a solar career is just a hard hat.
What States Are Hot for Solar Jobs?
Source: The Solar Foundation
Benefits to a Solar Career
While jobs in the solar industry generally pay a competitive salary, a renewable energy career has environmental and social benefits that go beyond money. Here are just a few of the reasons to feel good about a solar career.
Solar energy …
Combats Climate Change
Human activity with a dependence on fossil fuels – such as coal and natural gas – to power traditional electricity, has added harmful greenhouse gases to Earth’s atmosphere, raising the atmospheric temperature and negatively impacting the planet’s health. Solar energy generation sends few if any harmful emissions into the air, thereby helping to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that are affecting global warming and causing climate change. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, global warming emissions from renewable energy are minimal.
By every estimate, solar uses much less water than burning coal or using water from a hydroelectric plant – not an insignificant issue in the face of recent droughts affecting the Western U.S.
Secures a Sustainable Energy Resource
Nonrenewable energy resources – such as fossil fuels like coal and natural gas – not only are harmful to the environment, but they eventually will run out. The sun is the largest source of renewable energy and is not expected to run out of its hydrogen fuel for at least 5 billion years.
Fossil fuel incidents can result in devastating coal ash or oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. Solar, however, doesn’t have those worries.
Improves Human Health
Solar doesn’t emit gases or waste into the air, so our air is cleaner.
Boosts National Defense
The U.S. uses more oil than it produces, so it has to buy oil from other nations. This mean the U.S. is paying billions of dollars to nations, many of whom have ties to terrorism. Solar energy can help wean Americans from oil products, thereby creating less of a bond to risky nations.
Solar energy can bring electricity to parts of the world that have not before had access. By installing solar in these areas, more people can have access to electricity, benefiting their health and education.
Not only can solar energy save homeowners between $50 and $150 on energy each month, homes that have solar panels installed typically have a higher property value than homes without solar panels. In addition, the cost of solar has dropped about 53 percent since 2010, according to the American Solar Energy Society.
Generally speaking, salaries in solar are at least 10 percent and sometimes more than other industries. By adding a solar specialization to a trade or career, potential candidates can increase their value to employers, thereby garnering a higher wage.
The solar industry has created more than 200,000 jobs and continues to create jobs at a greater rate than the U.S. economy at large.
Best States for Solar
Click on any state to learn more about solar in that area:
||2016 PROJECTED GROWTH
||INSTALLED CAPACITY (MW)
Source: The Solar Foundation
Solar jobs exist in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and, according to The Solar Foundation, solar jobs should see 14.7 percent growth in 2016. However, the top six solar states account for more than 50 percent of the employment growth.
California remains the solar leader, having installed more solar in 2014 than the entire country did from 1997 to 2011, according to the SEIA. California boasts a number of solar-friendly policies, including tax incentives and rebates. California and other top solar states also owe some of their strength to financing policies that include third-party ownership for solar energy systems. These policies have enabled financing of more than half of the residential projects in states like Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
California, Florida, Texas and Arizona with their sunny weather make the list of the best states for solar jobs. However, because solar is effective energy across North America, some surprising states round out the Top 10. In 2014, Massachusetts moved up to the No. 2 position, based on state solar policies, electricity costs and incentives and rebates, and held that spot for 2016.
While Nevada had been experiencing dramatic growth in solar jobs, policy decisions in early 2016 are expected to negatively impact solar job growth expectations for the year.
Map Your Solar Career
You know that solar is the career of the future, but you hardly know where to begin. Don’t worry: With hundreds of thousands of Americans at work in solar jobs and strong industry growth, there’s bound to be a job for you, too.
A few factors driving the surge in solar careers include:
The extension of the 30 percent federal Solar Investment Tax Credit to 2019. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the credit’s extension is expected to create 220,000 jobs within the next five years.
The SEIA initiative to bring 50,000 veterans into the solar industry. Get more Solar Ready Vets information here.
A growing need for maintenance as solar systems begin to age. Maintenance jobs in solar require a higher skill set than other maintenance jobs.
A build up of manufacturing plants in the U.S. Because solar panels are expensive to ship, companies are looking to manufacture their materials closer to the demand.
Solar offers a wide range of career options, whether you have a high school diploma or want to seek a master’s degree. Here is a guide to some of the jobs available in today’s solar energy industry:
These jobs typically require a high school diploma and/or specialized training.
Basic installers assemble solar modules and safely attach the photovoltaic systems on rooftops and other structures. High school diploma or equivalent plus construction experience required. Able to work at heights and climb ladders carrying heavy equipment. Some jobs offer on-the-job training. With additional training can advance to solar crew chief or electrician with solar expertise.
Electrician with Solar Expertise
Tasks include connecting panes and other high-voltage equipment to power supply and installing and repairing PV-related wiring and fixtures. High school diploma or equivalent plus apprenticeship or other specialized training. Licensure and certification required. Required skills include good judgment and decision-making as well as physical dexterity.
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Operator
Run and monitor computerized machines to produce precise component parts for solar projects. High school diploma or equivalent required. Specific training provided on the job or through certification program. Ability to concentrate and stand for long periods of time required. Advancement available through apprenticeships or associate degree.
Solar Marketing Specialist
Analyze promotional potential of solar company and products, evaluate consumer demands and trends, and design advertising campaigns to promote solar projects and lifestyle. Associate degree, 1-3 years marketing experience and specialized training for entry-level positions required. Can advance with bachelor’s degree and certification.
Solar Sales Rep
Develop customer leads and make presentations, including quotes and contracts, to help customers determine their solar needs. Generally, an associate degree is acceptable, but sales jobs increasingly require a bachelor’s degree. New workers will receive specialized solar training. Motivated self-starters with outgoing personalities have best chance for success.
Inspect and monitor solar-related structures and systems, including buildings, wiring, plumbing and foundations, to make sure they are structurally sound and in compliance with regulations. Associate degree, specific solar training, licensure and certification required as well as three to five years of experience in the skilled trades. Good eyesight and attention to detail considered important.
Solar Energy Systems Designer
Design solar and photovoltaic systems, including the specifications for integrating systems and providing direction or support during installation. At least a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering and certification required. Certain jobs require a master’s degree.
Solar Utility Procurement Specialist
Develop and negotiate contracts for solar delivery, monitor inventory and oversee purchasing. Bachelor’s degree with strong math background required. Master’s degree required for advancement.
Utility Interconnection Engineer
Manages the interconnection of power generation to electric grid, which involves multiple operations. Ability to multi-task is essential. Bachelor of Science in engineering with five years experience expected.
Post Graduate Degree
Represent clients in proceedings with regulatory agencies and advise clients on legal and compliance issues. Bachelor’s and JD degrees required along with passage of the state bar exam. Solar expertise can be learned on the job or through certification. Most law positions are located in larger metro areas, such as New York City and San Francisco.
Solar Project Developer
Oversee all aspects of solar project from securing land and building permits through financing and construction. Requires at least bachelor’s degree in engineering or science with five years experience and certification. Post-graduate degree or MBA preferred. Good people skills required.
Improve solar processes and materials for a variety of reasons, including cost, aesthetics and environmental impact. Current research is focused on developing new materials and decreasing the cost of solar panels. Post-graduate degree required. Master’s or doctorate in applied physics, chemistry or materials science is becoming expected.
Solar Career Salaries
Solar salaries are comparable to other industries and in some cases can be 10 or 20 percent more. In general, solar employment has added nearly 100,000 living-wage jobs in the U.S. in the past five years.
Salaries can vary depending upon the location and scope of the project. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Interstate Renewable Energy Council, here are the average salaries of certain solar jobs:
Lawyer with solar expertise
Solar sales representative
Solar marketing specialist
Electrician with solar expertise
Solar photovoltaic installers
Roofer with solar expertise
Basic Installer/ Assembler
Get Solar Certified: Credentialing Bodies
Certification can be beneficial not only for workers, but also for employers and consumers. Across the nation, about 75 percent of employers reported some difficulty finding qualified job candidates in the solar industry.
Certification offers potential employees a way to be recognized and stand out from the pack. “It’s a tool for employers looking to hire people,” Lawrence said.
A certification lets employers know that the job candidate completed additional work for his or her field. In addition, certification can help workers by giving them more mobility to move between states and move to where the jobs are.
For many jobs in the solar industry, certification is voluntary. However, Lawrence of NABCEP recommends certification for nearly every position, including sales and marketing. “It’s a good starting point … to understand the fundamentals of solar,” he said.
The nonprofit NABCEP is the primary body for certification in the solar industry. Available certifications include the PV Installation Professional, PV Technical Sales and Solar Heating. NABCEP also offers accreditation for companies that meet standards developed by the Institute for Sustainable Power Quality (ISPQ).
To become certified, most candidates complete an accredited program, and then apply to take the appropriate certification exam. Exams are typically offered a few times each year and application deadlines typically fall two to three months before the scheduled exam. Applicants will need to factor exam times into their career map.
For consumers, certification lets them know that solar professionals have achieved a certain standard of training.
In addition to NABCEP, other credentialing bodies specific to solar include:
Association of Energy Engineers (AEE)
The nonprofit society, founded in 1977, offers several professional certifications, including Certified Energy Manager, Certified Energy Auditor, Certified Sustainable Development Professional, Certified Building Commissioning Professional and Certified Power Quality Professional. The certifications are post-secondary training and some are master’s level.
Roof Integrated Solar Energy (RISE)
The nonprofit was created by the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing and National Roofing Contractors Association to both support rooftop solar energy and evaluate solar roofing professionals. The certification is based on the goal of using solar while maintaining the roof and not affecting the life of the roof.
UL Knowledge Services
Certifications offered by UL Knowledge Services include PV System installer, which is open to qualified electricians, and Certified Risk Professional, which trains candidates to recognize certain property-related risks.
State Requirements for Solar Licensing
No single solar licensure exists for the entire U.S. Each state establishes its own requirements for solar workers as well as reciprocity with other states. What you need legally to work in the solar industry varies by state.
Licensure is mandatory for certain jobs and practices in various industries. States set up licensing requirements to protect consumers from unsafe practices and establish a baseline level of quality. The license essentially grants permission to an individual to work in a certain occupation with a certain degree of competency. If the individual does not have the license, he or she cannot work in that job. Legislatures pass the licensing laws, which are carried out by government agencies.
In the solar industry, licensing requirements began in the 1980s for solar contractors. A dozen states and Puerto Rico require licensure for solar contractors. In most states, licensed plumbers and electricians do not need a specialized solar license to work on a solar project.
Lawrence recommends newcomers to the solar industry enroll in an entry-level certification program. After taking a course, “they know the terminology, they know the basics,” Lawrence said.
About 200 solar-specific training programs, including those in community colleges, are registered with NABCEP.
Many states offer reciprocity with other states, meaning that they will accept the licenses from those states. Several states, however, including Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico and the District of Columbia, do not offer reciprocity, so workers will need to get new licenses in those areas.
Find out the solar licensing requirements in your state at the IREC Solar Licensing Database
Brighten Your Solar Future
Higher Education Can Take Your Career Further
As Lawrence points out, the solar industry is more than hard hats. Today, many universities and colleges across the U.S. offer two- and four-year degree programs in alternative and renewable energy. Programs also are reaching out to Spanish-speaking communities as well as veterans of the U.S. military.
There’s a growing recognition that this isn’t something you can learn in a weekend, (Courses) have become more rigorous.
Before deciding on a program of study, human resource officers advise investing time into researching careers and developing a career objective. In the solar industry, there isn’t a single career path but rather multiple ways of reaching a career goal. Prospective job candidates can follow a traditional, formal education path at a college or university or can look into trade programs, apprenticeships, technical schools or training provided by nonprofit entities such as Solar Energy International.
Research which jobs are growing, the necessary qualifications and which job would be most fulfilling. To find out what is going on in solar, attend local and national conferences or seminars and subscribe to industry publications.
Many students will find that the skills they already have will transfer to the solar industry. Others, such as engineers, installers and any management positions, will need more solar-specific study, including hands-on work as needed. Deciding between a short training program and a multi-year degree program comes down to the type of position you’re seeking. Installers will do well with a training program or associate degree, but engineers will need at least a four-year degree.
Many solar programs in the United States fall under the category of renewable or sustainable energy, alternative energy or green programs. Students can then choose to add an emphasis on solar.
Many community, technical and state colleges are offering a wide variety of programs, including solar photovoltaic, energy efficiency and conservation, and renewable energy. To select a good technical program, look for one that offers:
NABCEP-accredited program with NABCEP-certified instructors.
Hands-on training, such as the outdoor lab program at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev.
OSHA safety training, such as that involved in the American River College program in Sacramento.
A review class to help prepare you for the NABCEP exam.
Many four-year degrees are interdisciplinary programs, which involve multiple departments. Degrees that could give you a good start on a green career include biology, environmental engineering, conservation, renewable energy management, urban planning and business management.
IREC, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, provides a list of training programs throughout the U.S. Find the list here.
Training for Solar Jobs Online
Online education has emerged as a popular higher-education alternative.
Taking courses online allows students to continue with their current jobs and responsibilities while gaining new credentials for their resume. Online courses can be less costly than traditional university courses and they can be completed at home at the student’s convenience with a more flexible schedule. Online training also can translate into new computer-based skills, such as creating and sharing documents and using audio and visual materials in assignments.
Online courses in solar are available from the basics – such as a free six-week Introduction to Renewable Energy course offered by Solar Energy International – to 12-credit master’s level certificates, such as those offered by the University of Nevada Reno and Penn State.
Lawrence supports the use of online courses in furthering solar education. He adds a note of caution, however:
We always recommend having some hands-on component as well.
Costs of courses tend to run from about $800 for a six-week course to a master’s level course at about $1,500. Courses at private universities will tend to cost more and will include tuition as well as credit hours.
Associate degrees also are available. Ecotech Institute, for example, offers several associate-level degrees in renewable energy, including an Associate of Applied Science in Solar Energy Technology. The first two semesters are available online.
An array of PV installer courses are available online. These PV installer courses typically cover the components and applications for PV systems as well as site analysis, array configurations and other aspects of grid-direct PV systems. Look for courses that include online as well as hands-on training, both theory and practical applications with labs, eligibility to take the NABCEP exam and, if possible, have exam fees included in the cost of the course.
In addition, if you’re taking a technical course online, make sure you have the requisite background in construction, engineering or roofing.