Careers in Solar Power Manufacturing and InstallationSeptember 19, 2017
On August 21, 2017, as the total solar eclipse arched over the United States, some 1,900 utility-scale solar power plants across the country had the sunlight needed to generate electricity obscured. The path of totality, where the moon blocked direct sunlight for up to three minutes, affected 17 utility-scale solar power plants across the United States. Most of these plants were in eastern Oregon. Generating solar power, both commercially and residentially, requires many people in various types of occupations. What types of jobs exist in the solar power industry?
According to the Solar Foundation’s annual Solar Jobs Census, in 2016 Oregon had 4,509 jobs related to the solar power industry. At that number, Oregon had the 11th highest number of solar jobs per capita in the United States. Of the 4,509 solar jobs, 1,509 were new in 2016 and total solar jobs are projected to grow 5 percent in 2017. The Solar Foundation also organizes these solar power jobs by sector. Most of the solar jobs in Oregon are in installation (2,265) and manufacturing (1,202), with the rest of solar jobs falling into the sales and distribution (629), project development (75), and other (337) sectors.
This article will give a brief overview of some of the occupations that are present in the industry, the credentials needed, wages, and job projections for those occupations. We will focus on jobs found in solar power manufacturing and installation.
Occupations in Solar Manufacturing
Manufacturing in the solar industry mainly focuses on solar photovoltaic power and the production of photovoltaic panels. Making these panels requires many skilled workers.
- Semiconductor processors oversee the manufacturing process of solar cells and they test completed cells and perform diagnostic analyses. These workers are required to wear special lightweight outer garments and spend most of their day in clean rooms to prevent contamination of the cells and circuitry.
- Computer-controlled machine tool operators use machines to mass-produce components that require highly precise cutting. They run computer numerically controlled machines that form and shape solar mirrors and panel components.
- Welding, soldering, and brazing workers apply heat to metal pieces during the manufacturing process, melting and fusing them to form a permanent bond. Solar panels are made up of small cells that are soldered to electric circuitry.
- Glaziers are responsible for measuring and cutting the glass or laminate to cover solar panels, securing it into place, and sealing it. It is important to prevent the solar panel covers from cracking or scratching, which would reduce the efficiency of the solar panel.
- Coating and painting machine setters, operators, and tenders apply coating to solar panels, which is a highly complicated process that requires a great deal of precision. Workers must wear masks and special suits to protect them from the chemical fumes.
- Electrical and electronics installers and repairers work with complex electronic equipment that the solar industry depends on.
- Electrical and electronic equipment assemblers put together the final products and components that go into a solar panel. Many of these assemblers operate automated systems to assemble small electronic parts that are too small or fragile for human assembly.
- Industrial production managers determine which machines will be used, when new machines need to be purchased, and the production schedule. They are responsible for solving problems that could impact the quality of the solar panel components.
Data on wages and employment specific to occupations in the solar power industry is not available. The wages, current employment, and projected job growth for the occupations in solar manufacturing represent all industries that these occupations exist in. For each of these occupations, more detail about required skills, competitive advantages in the labor market, and schools and training programs in Oregon can be found on the Occupation Profiles on www.qualityinfo.org.
It is important to note that recently two solar manufacturers in Oregon, Panasonic and SolarWorld, announced plans to shut down or layoff numerous workers. Panasonic is shutting down its Salem, Oregon plant and will begin 92 layoffs on November 4, 2017. Solarworld planned to lay off at least 500 employees at its Hillsboro plant and to potentially shut down the location.
Solar Photovoltaic Installers
Once solar panels have been designed and manufactured, they must then be installed and properly maintained on homes and commercial buildings in order to provide solar energy. These duties of installation and maintenance primarily fall to solar photovoltaic installers. They assemble, install, and maintain solar photovoltaic systems on roofs or other structures in compliance with site assessment and schematics. This may include measuring, cutting, assembling, and bolting structural framing and solar modules. They may also perform minor electrical work such as current checks. Solar photovoltaic installers are often self-employed as general contractors or employed by solar manufacturers or installation companies.
While job projections for solar photovoltaic installers are not currently available, wages for these installers in Oregon are available. In 2017, the median hourly wage for solar photovoltaic installers in Oregon is $19.47. The average hourly wage is $20.19.
The typical entry-level education for solar photovoltaic installers is a high school diploma or equivalent. Workers in this occupation typically have a background in construction or even as electricians. Licensure requirements differ depending on where the installation is located, the installer, and the size of the installation. According to the State of Oregon’s Building and Codes Division, all individuals working on solar installation must work on behalf of an individual or business with an electrical contractor license. However, no individual license is required to install a racking system (roof- or ground-mounted structure on which solar photovoltaic panels are attached) or to lean the solar panels on the rack. An individual license is required to attach any electrical equipment to the racking system or other structure. More information on the specific required licenses can be found on the Building Code Division’s website.
There are also certificates in renewable energy technology or for renewable energy technicians. Many solar installers are licensed as general contractors or by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. These types of certifications, while not necessary, can improve the job prospects of installers and many larger projects require workers to be certified.
Other occupations in solar installation are site assessors, electricians, plumbers, and roofers. Solar photovoltaic installers possess many of the same skills as these occupations and sometimes even have work experience in these fields.
For more information about occupations in solar power and an overview of how solar power is generated, take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics Green Jobs article “Careers in Solar Power.”