In what is known as the photovoltaic process, radiation from the sun is converted into electricity. Although understood by scientists for many years, this process did not receive attention until the 1950s, when the first silicon solar cell was invented. Since the energy crises of the 1970s, there has been an increasing demand for solar energy technicians. These technicians install, maintain, operate, and test equipment and energy systems that use solar energy.
Each solar energy project, from conception to installation, requires the services of many technicians with various skills. Some technicians are construction craft workers, such as plumbers, carpenters, roofers, and sheet metal workers, who install or repair solar energy systems. Others work for architects or engineers, assisting them in the design of solar energy equipment and buildings. Sometimes systems are integrated into new buildings as they are constructed. Older buildings are also renovated to use solar energy equipment.
A solar energy technician may help construct and install active systems, which require solar collectors, concentrators, pumps, and fans. A technician may also help install passive systems, which rely on the best use of windows and insulation to absorb and reflect solar radiation for heating and cooling. Another type of solar energy system uses mirrors to absorb and concentrate the sun's radiation and convert it to heat. A fluid circulates among the mirrors collecting the heat and then transfers it to a central boiler or steam turbine, which generates the electricity.
Many workers in the solar energy field are experienced construction trade workers who have completed an apprenticeship program. They have received special training in solar energy technology through programs offered by trade associations and by vocational schools and community colleges. Such programs, which last from several weeks to a year, usually offer a certificate of completion. Courses include hands-on system installation, system maintenance, and retro-fittingA solar energy technician checks solar panels. High school graduates who want to install or repair solar systems take these training courses to get started in the field. They may also have to apprentice in one of the construction trades. On-the-job training is another possibility.
Those who are interested in the design, planning, or research aspects of solar energy should enter a community college or two-year vocational school program leading to an associate degree. Such programs provide practical and theoretical courses, including math, science, photovoltaics, solar-thermal systems, and solar architecture. Students who want professional engineering training can transfer some of the credits.
Students in a degree or certificate program can ask their school's placement office for assistance in finding a job. A graduate of a degree program may be able to find a job with an architectural or engineering firm. Solar research and development firms and solar equipment manufacturers may also have openings. Job seekers may find it helpful to talk to company representatives at convention exhibits that demonstrate the latest developments in solar technology.
Those who have strong credentials and an ability to keep pace with continual changes in solar technology should be able to advance, possibly to project supervisor or manager. Some solar energy technicians become owners of consulting or installation businesses.
The expansion of solar technology depends heavily on several factors, such as the amount of support offered by the government and the price of oil and other fuels. Job and career opportunities in this branch of solar energy are strongest in the warm southwestern region of the United States and in rural and remote areas. There are opportunities in solar power generator design, construction, and operation. Other opportunities exist in researching and developing system generators that are not harmful to the environment.
Solar energy technicians work under a variety of conditions and in various settings, depending on the type of job and employer. They work in the offices of large corporations, in research laboratories, or with outdoor crews. The work can be either physically demanding or fairly sedentary. The hours for installing solar equipment may be long when the weather is good. Layoffs can occur when the economy is bad or when the weather does not permit outside work.
Salaries vary widely. Most solar energy technicians earn between $18,000 and $40,000 per year, depending on education, geographical location, and type of position. Technicians who are employed by large companies usually receive benefits, including health insurance and paid vacations and holidays.