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Gear Up for Your Solar Career

Know the photovoltaic industry fundamentals — and be ready when the right job comes along.


By Liz Merry
Published: July/August 2009 issue

PV installation
So you like solar energy. There is something inherently attractive in using this constant, free, universally available energy source to help solve some of our most pressing problems. Now the solar industry is tasked with the awesome responsibility of installing enough solar technology to make a difference in the fight against climate change. Inventor Saul Griffith, Ph.D., estimates that meeting this goal means installing 100 square meters (about 1,076 square feet) of photovoltaics (PV) every second for 25 years to replace just 2 terawatts, or 13 percent of current global grid-tied electricity. (Download the podcast of Griffith’s January presentation at the Long Now Foundation at longnow.org/projects/seminars.)

How will you participate in this solar revolution? I recently reread “Finding Your Dream Job in Solar” by industry insider Andy Black, published in SOLAR TODAY’s September/October 2005 issue (access it and other career resources at solartoday.org/jobs). This valuable article describes several relevant strategies for pursuing a solar career. It’s especially enjoyable to note how the global PV industry has grown since the article’s publication — from 1 gigawatt in annual module production to more than 10 gigawatts expected this year. Annual revenue has increased from $7 billion to more than $37 billion in 2008, according to Solarbuzz.

Rather than reiterate the advice found in “Dream Job,” here we explore what it means to understand the grid-tied PV industry. The industry topics described are applicable to several other mainstream solar technologies (e.g., solar water heating, concentrating solar, passive and active solar design, utility-scale solar and daylighting), but each technology has its own story.

The solar PV business can be understood as a hybrid of the utility and construction industries. If you have experience in either of those industries, you will have a sense of how the customers and service providers are related in solar.

Understanding the fundamentals of the solar industry includes knowing technology basics, the industry ecosystem (size, scope, value chain), policy drivers, regulatory barriers and project economics. Add to these basics a survey of industry resources, and you have a framework from which to investigate your place in the industry. Although market research reports offer this information for a price, you’ll make more contacts by doing the research yourself.


Get to Know the Technology

Everyone seeking a solar career should take at least a consumer-level class for a solid grounding in the technology. Online-only courses can be useful, but the more hands-on the better.

The technology course should cover how the equipment works, what options are available and how the system is designed. Various course levels are available, from “consumer level,” where the equipment is described in a classroom for a day, to hands-on, installer-focused courses that last from two days to six weeks.

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is the nationally recognized certification organization that coordinates the NABCEP Solar PV Installer Certification and the Entry Level Certificate Program. The NABCEP website, nabcep.org, has detailed task analysis and study guides for both solar thermal and solar electric system installers.

When comparing training options, you might consider these factors: the instructors’ experience with the technology and in teaching, NABCEP accreditation to provide the Entry Level of Knowledge Certification training and exam, course availability and time to completion. Some people pay a premium for a five-day hands-on course in order to compress the training period. However, if you have the opportunity, the best values are often found through community colleges and nonprofit organizations.


Understand the Industry Ecosystem

Growth in the U.S. grid-tied PV industry was greatly accelerated as a result of California’s rolling power blackouts in 2000 and 2001, caused by energy gaming. The technology has a long history, but because the industry is so new, it is straightforward to understand how the business works.

First, understand the product. The solar PV industry’s product is electricity, otherwise being sold to your grid-tied customer by a utility. The product is measured in units of kilowatt-hours (kWh) for electricity. Customer motives for buying solar kWh range from solely environmental concerns to economic returns.

Second, understand the size and scope of the industry. I mentioned earlier that global PV system revenue grew to $37 billion in 2008, which seems impressive until you read that the U.S. energy industry revenue was $268 billion in 2004, according to Edison Electric Institute. Energy Information Administration figures find that solar still provides less than 2 percent of the grid-tied electricity capacity in California and even less of the national energy mix. California has approximately 50,000 grid-tied PV systems. Summary data from California Solar Statistics show that 91 percent of projects are residential, yet commercial projects generate 75 percent of megawatts (and therefore of revenue).

For more information about the size and scope of the PV industry, I recommend the free annual summary reports available from the Solar Energy Industries Association and Solarbuzz.

Third, know how solar businesses make money. The product “value chain” refers to the relationship of businesses from materials supply through manufacturing, to equipment sales and on down to system installation and customer support.

The customer segments usually reflect their utility rate classes — most broadly, residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial. Each customer segment has its own set of goals and challenges. The unifying factor among solar customers thus far is that they are all still “early adopters.” This means they are in the first 10–15 percent of customers to adopt a new technology. Solar companies must adapt their marketing message to different customer segments. One source for such market research is Smart Power, a Connecticut nonprofit that studies consumer perceptions about renewable energy technologies.


Appreciate the Policy Drivers

Government policy and the energy and building industries are tightly connected. Without strong government leadership, it is difficult to fundamentally change the infrastructure. Thus, it is important to understand the policy changes that support or hinder solar in order to understand a solar employer’s business strategy.

Solar energy solutions compete with energy sources that don’t yet reflect the societal costs of carbon emissions. In order to define a level playing field, the Solar Alliance has described four policy “pillars” needed to build a sustainable solar industry:

• Standards and incentives. Until utility rates reflect the true environmental cost of production and use, new clean energy technologies will need financial incentives to establish a sustainable market.

• Energy tariffs and utility revenues that support distributed generation. Energy needs to cost more the more you use, generation during peak hours needs to be rewarded and solar investors should be able to sell their energy to the utility directly through feed-in laws.

• Net-metering standards. These standards provide retail credit for solar power sent back through the meter for use by the utility.

• Interconnection rules. These ensure the utility has clear, easy-to-manage standards for interconnecting the solar system to the grid.

I would add a fifth required policy: solar access laws that protect the system owner’s right to install the equipment and harvest their solar resources.

Policies vary considerably from state to state, and solar markets bloom where policies are supportive. Likewise, the long-term federal investment tax credit (30 percent) is a strong incentive. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency is a great resource for information on solar incentives and policies by location.


Recognize Regulatory Barriers

Regulations are the various standards and practices needed to implement pro-solar policies. The policy points in a direction, but the regulations are the path to get there.

Utilities and construction are mature industries. They have conducted business the same way for a long time, and they have a vested interest in continuing their existing patterns. This makes solar energy’s entrance into new markets a real challenge. A million solar roofs will significantly alter the traditional utility model of centralized generation and command-control grid technology. But retrofitting solar into existing buildings will require standardizing the patchwork of local permitting procedures and utility interconnection standards. That’s no small task, considering that the solar industry itself is still developing common standards and protocols for communicating system production and project economics.

The regulatory landscape is continually shifting. Employers that must navigate these regulatory challenges appreciate job applicants who understand the basic issues. Or perhaps you’ll invent the widget, software or business model that alleviates a regulatory barrier.


Learn the Economics

At the project level, the financial picture starts with equipment prices. At least half of a PV system’s cost is based on module prices, which is one reason the industry has a goal of being able to price modules at less than a dollar per watt (DC).

Representing almost three-quarters of PV sales activity in the United States, California offers a good benchmark for industry economics. One of the easiest ways to analyze price trends and equipment sales is using the California Solar Statistics database. This searchable database provides information on project costs, equipment used and more.

You can also learn a lot by studying project economics using the free online project calculators used by solar customers. Try running different project variables through these systems to note how the financial returns and CO2 impacts change. Download the free Solar Advisor Model software from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and practice building your own estimates for solar electric, solar thermal and utility-scale projects: nrel.gov/analysis/sam.

Finally, learn about the various mechanisms for project financing through articles or distributor websites. These mechanisms include power purchase agreements, system leasing and property-tax and/or bond-funded financing through local governments.


Participate in the Solar Movement

Learning about solar industry resources is where you begin to demonstrate your commitment and build the network essential to launching your new solar career. The U.S. industry is still fairly flat and easy to approach, and there are many ways to get involved. Here are just a few.

• Organizations: The American Solar Energy Society and its chapters (click here to find a chapter in your area), the Solar Energy Industries Association and chapters, Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), Florida Solar Energy Center, Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), VoteSolar, Solar Nation.

• Clicks: SolarBuzz.com, RenewableEnergyWorld.com, PV-Tech.org, GreentechMedia.com, PVResources.com. Subscribe to the e-newsletters and listen to weekly podcasts.

• Events: Attend the annual ASES National Solar Conference along with events produced by SEIA, SEPA, REW, IREC and the ASES and SEIA regional chapters.

• Reads: SOLAR TODAY, Home Power, Photon, Solar Pro and Renewable Energy World magazines.

• Volunteer Efforts: Get involved in solar tours, help produce newsletters, educate local business groups, bring pro-solar policies to your community, produce YouTube videos on solar, help install through Habitat for Humanity or other building nonprofits, raise money to install solar on your local schools or help teachers use solar curriculum in the classroom.

• Projects: Build your own solar installations — from water fountains to whole-house systems.

Like other segments of the economy, the solar industry has experienced consolidation as a result of the global economic recession. Overseas players are also moving aggressively to win U.S. markets. But we have many reasons for optimism.

As industry expert and project lawyer Ed Feo stated on a recent RenewableEnergyWorld.com podcast, “[Y]ou’re starting to see these little buds come out of the ground, of term sheets being circulated and people being interested in doing financing.” This year we are benefitting from various types of support, including a 10-year, 30 percent federal tax credit available to all customers, stimulus funding for project grants (in lieu of tax credits for applicable commercial projects) and falling module prices. Congress may soon act to put a price on carbon emissions so that green power is even more price competitive.

As sure as the sun comes up every day, now is the perfect time to learn about the industry and take those first steps toward a career in solar.

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JOIN THE DISCUSSION: Are you looking to get into the solar industry? If so, what obstacles are you facing? Or, if you're working in the industry, have any advice to share? Comment here >

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About the author: Liz Merry, SOLAR TODAY’s “Ask Ms. Liz” columnist, has been teaching solar career and business courses for two years. Merry is the sole proprietor of Verve Solar Consulting and served as the first executive director for NorCal Solar, the ASES chapter based in Berkeley, Calif. This article is based on her daylong Solar Industry Orientation courses. Contact Merry at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



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