Solar is leading the charge for renewables. The price of solar panels dropped 46% (since 2011) and companies like Google and Bank of America are making huge investments in residential solar power.
The 2012 third annual National Solar Jobs Census reported that U.S. solar industry employed close to 120,000 people. In the last year, the employment in the industry grew by 13.2%. By 2030, according to the DOE SunShot Vision Study, the solar industry will create 290,000 new solar jobs.
“I see electricians going into the solar market, structural steel companies going into constructing solar mounting systems,” said Avi Yashchin, CEO of CleanEdison, Inc., the nation’s largest clean-tech training provider, in an interview with Bloomberg.
To support this growth, the industry will need skilled professionals. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) created a Solar Career Map to help individual’s locate career opportunities in their area.
Professional Training and Certification
There are three major types of solar workforce training and education currently offered in the U.S.:
Entry-level Solar Training– the most prevalent type of training is offered by hundreds of organizations from colleges to vocational schools. Many of them are registered with North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) and use its Entry-Level Learning Objectives.
Advanced Solar Training – targeted to specific jobs, for example installers, or sales professionals, or maintenance personnel. Typically, these people already work in the field and want career advancement.
Continuing Education – for on-going professional development to stay up-to-date with new equipment, installation or sales tools, codes and standards. A lot of this type of classes are sponsored by vendors and manufacturers.Even professionals who are very experienced in other areas of building industry, but not in solar, will benefit from training. The cost of mistakes is high.
The Cost of Inexperience
Solar systems are pretty simple, they have no moving parts and require virtually no maintenance. However, they are not easy to install, and many things could go wrong. Right now, the solar industry is particularly vulnerable to shoddy workmanship. One reason is that a lot of people saw an opportunity, and everyone from roofers and electricians to home heating specialists became “solar specialists” overnight. The results of poor quality work – poor performance, safety violations, unsightly appearance – do damage to the whole industry.
(Read more on 6 common mistakes of new Solar PV installers).
A professional certification is a way to ensure consistency and. It also gives solar professionals a competitive advantage. If a consumer wants to install a solar system and seeks advice on how to go about it (read about How to choose a solar installer), one of the first pieces of advice will be to look for certified installers.
According to a report from CleanEdison, about 36,600 people are expected to be certified as solar technical employees by 2020, including positions such as installers. That’s a 24% increase from 2010.
A solar certification gives customers confidence that a professional has a confirmed level of skill based on national standards. According to NABCEP, a professional certification “provides a measure of protection to the public by giving them a credential for judging the competency of practitioners”.
For a NABCEP certification, all candidates must have field experience, a minimum of 58 hours of advanced solar training, and an OSHA 10 hour construction industry card or equivalent. NABCEP, and authorized providers, offer preparation courses that provide critical knowledge of solar energy and systems and teach how to organize a successful solar installation project.
The NABCEP professional certifications are voluntary and not a replacement for a special solar installer license required by some states (most states do not require a license, or require just an electrical license – see a state by state list of license requirements for Solar Energy Contractors).
Funding for Training
U.S. government has been a major source of funding, through loans, grants, and contracts made under the ARRA. Financing the Next Generation of Solar Workers discusses some creative new funding options: Public/Private Partnership, Revolving Loan Funds and Crowd sourcing.
Looking to the future
Solar energy stands to transform not only the power industry, but also building design.
There is a new term – Solar Architecture – focused on integration of solar panel technology with modern building techniques. Architects used to dislike solar panels for being unattractive. But the familiar roof-top PV panels are just the first generation of solar technology. A new generation of building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) has the potential to transform common building materials into renewable energy sources: roofing shingles that double as solar panels, photovoltaic glass. But solar design is about more than just photovoltaics, it is about the entire relationship between the building and its surroundings and the sun. Solar design includes proper building orientation, landscaping that doesn’t interfere with solar access and green roofs that boost solar panel efficiency by 3% to 16%.
Technological advances mean that building professionals need to find ways to achieve what has never been achieved before. This will require them to constantly learn new and update old skills. This is just the way it is going to be … for all our good.