Solar power technicians plan, install, and maintain arrays of solar panels at industrial, commercial, and residential sites around the country. Often working overhead, they are responsible for safely erecting frames to hold panel arrays, and then wiring in the panel output to building systems or to the main electrical grid.
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Rooftops all over the country are taking on a new look as the solar power industry kicks into high gear. Solar installations have been increasing at an annual growth rate of 60 percent since 2006, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. As the efficiency of solar panels increases and the cost of installation goes down, solar is being embraced as an alternative energy source for the mainstream.
Solar Electricians Tap Sunlight For Electricity: Job Duties and Other Considerations
There are three basic types of solar panel produced today:
- Monocrystalline – The most expensive but efficient, using only pure silicon to produce a large, single crystal per cell
- Polycrystalline – Cheaper but slightly less efficient, using multiple small crystals joined together per cell
- Amorphous – The cheapest cells consist simply of silicon layered over metal, not using true crystals at all, and are very inefficient
Scaling Up Small Amounts of Electricity
Solar panels produce power by the action of photons passing through silicon-based crystals and striking exotic elements like gallium arsenide or cadmium telluride in thin-film cells joined in series to produce larger electrical outputs. Each individual cell in the panel might produce only half a volt of electricity even at peak capacity—hardly enough to bother. But by linking those cells together, they produce a combined voltage sufficient to charge battery banks that can power homes, offices and businesses. Depending on the panel size, the resulting wattage can produce more than enough electricity to power a home or office, with any surplus simply being fed back into the electrical power grid.
The 90 Degree Rule
The highest efficiency is achieved when the sun strikes the cells at an angle of about 90 degrees. This can require that panels be installed at variable angles, or mounted on tracking systems to follow the sun throughout the day.
Because the cells are linked to produce acceptable output voltages, shading any portion of the panel can dramatically reduce the efficiency. Solar electricians can install blocking diodes in systems to minimize this effect and keep electricity from effectively “leaking” back out of the cells when they are partially shaded.
Arranging Panels in an Array
Because each individual panel produces relatively little power, many panels are connected in series or in parallel (similar to how the cells within the panels are connected) in order to get a useful amount of electricity from them.
Deciding the best way to make these connections and the most efficient way to lay out the panels which form a complete array requires solar technicians to evaluate the electrical needs of a domicile or other building and perform calculations on total power production under a variety of levels of sunlight and in different seasons.
Tracking the Sun
Solar technicians may also have to install electrical tracking systems, which tilt the panels to follow the sun through the course of the day. This involves not only the mechanical aptitude to install motors and gimbals on the panel array, but also figuring out the geometry of the sun angle to different times of day and different times of year. The calculations can be quite complex for installations that also have to take into account the panel type and the surrounding terrain. The presence of trees, for example, can shade cells during certain seasons and influence the ideal positioning of the panels in winter versus summer.
Solar electricians often find themselves work on rooftops to install panels in locations that are relatively unobstructed. Safety is a primary concern and solar installers who work at heights receive specialized training in high-angle rescue and restraints. They may use ladders, lifts, or bucket trucks to access elevated arrays.
Industrial Solar Installations
Other solar technicians work for power companies installing vast, multi-acre panel arrays on open terrain. Although access to the panels is far easier, the large amounts of power produced at such installations requires different wiring procedures and the use of transformers to step the voltage to the right level to match the electrical grid that it will be injected into.
The Steps Required to Become a Solar Electrician
Working strictly as a solar photovoltaic installer who performs installation, maintenance and repair of solar panel systems does not require any type of electrician license or specialized certification. This type of work can, however, be a good first step toward becoming a solar service electrician since it would be helpful in gaining a working understanding of how all the components of a solar electrical system come together.
State or Jurisdictional Electrician License
Solar electricians who are capable of troubleshooting and diagnosing operational issues, performing complex wiring installations, installing system monitoring software and brining solar electrical systems online would typically be subject to the same kind of licensing laws within a state or other jurisdiction as any other type of electrician. In states and other jurisdictions that have separate licensing classifications for commercial and industrial electricians, any non-residential wiring work that would need to be performed under one of these types of licenses. This would include those working in power generating plants or substations installing and maintaining the electrical equipment that connects a solar farm to the electrical grid or those who work with industrial generators, inverters, transformers or otherwise perform high voltage work.
Associate’s Degree Programs
Some community colleges are beginning to offer associate’s degrees in solar energy technology. Such degrees are a quick stepping stone to entry-level positions with solar installation companies.
New job candidates with an associate’s degree usually command a better starting salary and may be in a better position to complete for supervisory positions as they gain experience.
Becoming a solar electrician starts by gaining an education through a certificate or associate’s degree program available at a community college or career school while gaining relevant work experience through an apprenticeship that involves performing solar panel work.
Like any other type of electrician, this requires license candidates to be hired on as an apprentice and work under the supervision of more experienced solar electricians for a number of years. Typically, after two to four years as an apprentice, candidates can test to become qualified journeymen, at which point they would be allowed to work without direct supervision. After working as a journeyman for another 2-3 years, these electricians would be eligible to test for a master electrician license.
Professional certification, which is usually voluntary, should not be confused with an electrician license, which is a legal requirement enforced by state or local government. However, it is common for employers to require that job candidates hold some form of professional certification as an added measure for making sure they are skilled in solar applications.
A certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners is becoming a fairly standard requirement for many solar jobs. Candidates can study and take the certification test independently, prior to applying for a position as a solar electrician.
Solar Electrician Salary and Job Prospects
Solar panels are installed all over the country, but they are considerably more popular in lower-latitude states with large amounts of regular sunshine. California and the desert southwest have high concentrations of solar electrical jobs. However, many installers travel regularly to sites outside of their home region to make large installations.
Looking at the starting pay rates offered through employers in some of the major job markets throughout the United States gives some idea of what solar electricians can expect to earn as they enter the field. (These figures were sourced from job ads posted in August of 2016. They are shown for illustrative purposes only and are not meant to provide any guarantee of hourly pay rates.):
- Journeyman Solar Electrician in North Carolina – $20/hour
- Solar Edge Electrician in California – $20/hour
- Field Services Technician with solar installation company in Massachusetts – $25/hour
- Certified Journeyman Electrician with solar installation company in California – $30/hour
Generally, solar electricians will be better paid than other members of the solar photovoltaic installer crew.
Apprentices make anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of the salary of a fully qualified journeyman solar electrician.
Largely fueled by state and federal tax credits meant to encourage businesses and individuals to adopt solar power, the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics expects there to be a 24 percent increase in the number of solar technician jobs in the US during the ten-year period leading up to 2024.