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The earth is about 150 million km from the sun and intercepts only an infinitessimal fraction of the sun's radiation emission - actually less than 0.0000005%! Only about 60% of this reaches the earth's surface, the remainder being reflected back into space or absorbed by the atmosphere. However, if we could harness just 1% of the radiation reaching the surface and convert it to electricity at 1% efficiency, this would result in about 12 TW - or four time the world's total generating capcity. This is the ultimate solar prize.
Solar technologies are broadly characterized as either passive solar or active solar depending on the way they capture, convert and distribute solar energy. Active solar techniques include the use of photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors to harness the energy. Passive solar techniques include orienting a building to the Sun, selecting materials with favorable thermal mass or light dispersing properties, and designing spaces that naturally circulate air.
A partial list of solar applications includes space heating and cooling through solar architecture, potable water via distillation and disinfection, daylighting, solar hot water, solar cooking, and high temperature process heat for industrial purposes.
Electric power is produced from sunlight either directly, by photovoltaics (PV) - the direct application the photoelectric effect, or by using a fluid, heated by focused solar rays, to power a heat engine (e.g. turbine or Stirling engine) - commonly referred to a concentrating solar thermal (CST) or concentrating solar power (CSP)..
There is a large variety of photovoltaic designs - from tiny panels to power wristwatches to multi-megawatt utility installations and, while most devices use direct sunlight, some rely on focusing, or concentrating the sunlight onto a small area.
This 2MW array at Fort Carson, Colorado illustrates a typical flat panel PV system.
At the University of Nevada Las Vegas there is an example of concentrating PV -from Amonix. This PV system has a rated power output of 25 kW and operation is automatic. It has remote monitoring and control and a hydraulic drive with a closed loop controller. This solar concentrator has refractive optics using circular Fresnel lenses. It's concentration ratio is 250 suns with a focal distance of 21 inches. It has 7560 lenses. Its power conversion units is made of silicon photovoltaic cells. Total cell area is 7.42 ft2. The system can be used in Large fields connected to the utility grid or a remote off-grid, hydrogen generation and water pumping. The noteworthy fact in the above, is that although the system is many hundreds of square feet - see the size of the men and the truck alongside it - there are actually less than 8 square feet of PV cells.
Information on the technical and commercial aspects of the PV industry can be foundonline.
Solar thermal systems producing electricity focus the incident sunlight on a working fluid and possibly the simplest example is the parabolic trough, where the radiation is focused onto a tube carrying the fluid. The fluid is then pumped to a turbine. An example of this type at Kramer junction is shown below.
This was the world's largest solar power facility, located near Kramer Junction, California. The facility consists of five Solar Electric Generating Stations (SEGS), with a combined capacity of 150 megawatts. At capacity, that is enough power for 150,000 homes. The facility covers more than 1000 acres, with over 1 million square meters of collector surface. The SEGS utilize parabolic trough collectors to focus the sun's energy on a pipe carrying a flow of heat transfer fluid (synthetic oil). The fluid flows to heat exchangers where the heat turns water into steam to drive conventional steam turbine generators, which produce electrical power. The SEGS III-VII projects were built in 1986-1988 by Luz International. All SEGS plants have 30-year contracts (power purchase agreements) with Southern California Edison, the local utility for most of Southern California.
Solar power towers use thousands of individual sun-tracking mirrors (called heliostats) to reflect solar energy onto a central receiver located on top of a tall tower. The receiver collects the sun's heat in a heat-transfer fluid that flows through the receiver. The U.S. Department of Energy, and a consortium of U.S. utilities andindustry, built the first two large-scale, demonstration solar power towers (Solar One and Solar Two) in the desert near Barstow, California.
Solar One operated successfully from 1982 to 1988, proving that power towers work efficiently to produce utility-scale power from sunlight. The Solar One plant used water/steam as the heat-transfer fluid in the receiver; this presented several problems in terms of storage and continuous turbine operation. To address these problems, Solar One was upgraded to Solar Two, which operated from 1996 to 1999. Both systems had the capacity to produce 10 MW of power.
The unique feature of Solar Two was its use of molten salt to capture and store the sun's heat. The very hot salt was stored and used when needed to produce steam to drive a turbine/generator that produces electricity. The system operated smoothly through intermittent clouds and continued generating electricity long into the night.
The Boeing dish Stirling System at the Southern California Edison Solar One test site had a dish based on McDonnell Douglas heliostat design with 82 glass-metal facets (87.7 sq. meters) and a United Stirling (USAB) 4-95 Mark II Stirling engine with a DIR receiver.
In 2004 we forecast what we believed was a rapid rise in installed capacity to almost 10GWp in 2010 (see left). However, in the period since, PV has averaged over 39% annual growth worldwide through 2009 and the total installed capacity reached almost 23GW (see right) - more than double the Greenjobs forecast in 2004.
According to the International Energy Agency (2010) this growth is likely to continue. They forecast (see left) that the global installed PV capacity could reach 2000 GWp by 2040. This may seem extravagant, but it is much more conservative than an a Greenpeace/EPIA study which forecast attainment of this 2000 GWp ten years earlier.
These numbers do not include other types of solar technologies and CSP will be a significant player in this timescale. Such growth should encourage those who work in solar as well as those who would like to. There will continue to be a demand for talent that is likely to exceed supply.
Naturally this growth has been accompanied by the creation of new jobs. Interestingly, because the technology is fairly young and has yet to attain maximum economies of scale, it has also created more jobs per $ invested or MW installed than traditional energy sources. In 2001, the US PV Industry Roadmap gave the estimates shown at left. These comparisons were supported by studies in Europe and Australia.
These figures were also reinforced by Engle and Kammen, 2010 (right) who expressed their results in jobs/GWh. So, whether we measure by jobs/$ invested, jobs/MW installed or jobs/kWh output, solar generates more jobs than coal, natural gas or nuclear power generation.
The total number of jobs generated by any industry can be broken down into 3 components:
In 2008, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) compiled an estimate of global PV employment based on five industry leaders: Germany, Spain, China, Japan, and the United States. PV jobs in these countries together amounted to approximately 170,000 jobs worldwide in 2007 (Renner et al. 2008).
In 2008, there were an estimated 173,000 direct and indirect jobs worldwide in the solar electric industry, according to a 2009 New Energy Finance (NEF) study (McCrone et al. 2009). Most of these jobs were in the PV manufacturing value chain and in the construction and installation of PV components and projects. Of the 173,000 jobs, the PV industry contributed about 169,000 and the CSP industry about 4,000. The 169,000 PV jobs correspond to 5.8 GW produced and installed globally in 2008 and 14.7 GW of cumulative installed PV capacity through 2008. Although the UNEP and NEF figures are nominally one year apart, they represent excellent agreement since it is not unusual for job estimates to vary based on many factors, including differences in methodology and metrics, which jobs in the value chain are being counted, and in this case, for which year and which countries the data are being provided.
Direct plus indirect solar jobs in the US were estimated to be around 14,800 (2007) and 27,000 (2008) (Price and Margolis, 2009). In Europe, the European Photovoltaic Industries Association (EPIA) and Greenpeace reported 2007 global PV employment of over 204,000 with 50,000 in the USA. In 2010, the US Solar Industries Association (SEIA) and Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) commissioned an actual survey of US solar related jobs. The National Solar Jobs Census 2010 found almost 94,000 solar jobs in August of that year which they estimated was double the number for the previous year, putting it in line with the Price and Margolis figures.. This is the first actual count of jobs rather than an estimate and it is reassuring that it demonstrated such postitive movement.
The US National Solar Jobs Census 2012 reported that, as of September 2012 there were 119,016 solar workers in the United States, up from a revised 105,145 in 2011. This represented an overall growth rate of 13.2% since August 2011, which is nearly six times higher than the national average employment growth rate of 2.3% over the same period. This comparison indicates that since the release of Census 2011, one in 230 new US jobs were created in the solar industry. Moreover, eighty-six percent of the nearly 14,000 new solar workers added since August 2011 represent new jobs, rather than existing positions that have added solar responsibilities.
SolarCensus anticipates 17.2% jobs growth in the US in the next year - based on responses by the companies interviewed. And it is not alone in predicting continued rapid growth. According to a 2008 study by Worldwatch for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), renewable energy is poised for continued expansion, and may generate more than 8 million jobs in wind and solar alone over the next two decades. The table here shows Greenpeace/EPIA projections, which imply almost 10 million diect PV josb in 2030.
The picture appears clear: economic troubles, such as the recent recession, amy slow down growth to a degree but we can anticipate a continued and growing need for talent to fuel the solar jobs engine.
Job Options in Solar
The Solar Electric Supply Chain
An understanding of the nature of the solar energy industry may help recognize the types opportunities that can become available.
At the core of the solar electric industry are the cell and module manufacturers – these are the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) of the industry. However other key manufacturers include those making everything else needed for a solar electric system – particularly inverters and controllers, normally referred to as balance of system (BOS) components. They are supplied by a plethora of other organizations,
This supply chain is an integral part of the solar industry and the jobs involved are dependent on its success. These and BOS manufacturers are normally classified as “indirect” jobs, as distinct from the “direct” jobs offered by the OEMs and their agents.
OEMs market their products in a variety of ways: basically they either sell direct to end customers or through distributors – many do both. In any particular geographical area, solar distributors may be the most visible face of the industry. They may stock solar electric modules from more than one manufacturer, install and maintain systems from a few to hundreds of kilowatts and work directly with consumers – whether commercial or residential, and they may also cover other renewable energy technologies in addition to solar electric. Many are very small businesses but increasingly the best are becoming significant as the industry expands. However, even the larger companies employ relatively few people since they have no real manufacturing capacity. However they do employ engineers and generalists in the design, assembly, installation and maintenance of systems.
The solar electric manufacturers form a very mixed group. The biggest are already mid-sized companies, with revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, employing several hundred people, sometimes in many different countries. Others may have much lower sales but be more active in research and development.
Distributors and Integrators may also employ service, material and equipment suppliers, though on a much smaller scale than the OEMs and BOS manufacturers. For those of you wishing to make a career in the solar electric industry, the important thing to remember is that there are jobs in every sector leading up to the End Users, although their nature earning capacity may differ markedly.
Let’s look at the cell and Module Manufacturers to get some idea of the number and types of jobs available. The figure below is based on a hypothetical company manufacturing and selling about 20MW of product. The total number of employees is 100, of whom 60% are in manufacturing. As calibration, consider the recently opened Sharp 20MW production plant in Memphis directly employs 67 people. Of the remainder, 10% are in technology, essential to new product development in such an industry, and the rest almost evenly divided between corporate management and sales. The proportion shown in management may seem high – indeed for many companies it probably is. However, in this example we have included Human Resources, Information Technology, Accounting and Finance, Marketing, Planning and Logistics in addition to the CEO. If we accept this distribution as reasonable we can then examine what kind of employment opportunities may be on offer.
Let’s start from the top – the CEO of many solar electric companies have been technical entrepreneurs with extensive management experience, a lifetime’s technical knowledge and a vision of the products they wanted to make. In a fledgling high technology industry, this is to be expected. However, as the successful companies grow, the industry matures and demands on CEOs change, not least because of the expectations of the market and anxious shareholders. Replacements for the original CEO, whose real forte may have been technical innovation, are increasingly likely to be individuals whose forte is leadership and business innovation. Obviously, such posts are relatively few and only become available on an occasional basis. Moreover, even when a company is looking for a new CEO it may not advertise the fact and may employ recruitment services to identify suitable candidates. If it is the kind of opportunity you want to pursue, you have two choices: either start your own company or consistently build your profile and reputation by excelling in each of your appointments, develop your management and leadership qualities in a variety of positions and make no secret of your intent.
Marketing is something sometimes done by the CEO, but in anything but a very small company, it is usually someone else ‘s responsibility. Sometimes it is combined with Sales although this does not always make sense. For example, if a company becomes international, it is likely to make sense to have Sales organizations on a regional basis while Marketing may stay a Head Office function. This could be because the function of Marketing is not just to promote its products but also to raise the profile of the company, when it fits with company strategy, and this must be accomplished in a consistent manner worldwide. The Marketer will have had previous experience, perhaps in Sales in the industry or even in Marketing in another industry and will have convinced his employer that he has an understanding of the company strategy, the image it wants to present for itself and its products and the skills to develop and implement a plan which achieves this. The original qualifications of the Marketer are often less relevant than his experience and he may be a graduate from any discipline.
Planning is a strategic activity in which the CEO normally plays a major part. However, in any sizeable company, he normally has at least one professional whom he trusts to help him and take responsibility for the maintenance of the plan. The individual is likely to have previous industry experience and is increasingly likely to hold some type of business qualification.
Human Resources, Accounting and Finance, and Information Technology have at least two things in common – they are usually filled with professionals with special qualifications and, unlike the roles discussed above, they may be outsourced. However, every company in the industry has need of these services whether outsourced or not and opportunities will regularly present themselves to suitably qualified candidates.
Logistics has been broken out here simply to highlight it, although it may in practice be included in the manufacturing organization. Those responsible for it must have the skills to procure everything required and make sure everything is where it needs to be when it is required. In order to do it well, those responsible must have the qualities required to develop and maintain good relationships with suppliers, negotiate sound contract terms and have very good organizational skills. It is a specialist role, which can be key in optimizing the efficiency of the company’s operations, and is normally not outsourced.
In very large companies, Technology, or Research and Development, can become regarded as a corporate overhead to be minimized. However, in the infancy of high technology industries, it is critical in giving companies products with which they can differentiate themselves – whether in cost, reliability, performance or durability – ideally all four! All cell and module manufacturers have in-house technology organizations staffed with individuals possessing a variety of skill sets and qualifications. These organizations are likely to offer opportunities for technologists of almost every description, including materials scientists, engineers of many descriptions, chemists and physicists. The Technology organization is likely to be led by someone who has grown “through the ranks”, either in the same company or in other companies or even other industries, and possesses the organizational and leadership skills to make what is often a disparate group of specialists perform well together.
The Manufacturing organization is likely to be led by an engineer – probably a very skilled but pragmatic engineer, since the success of such an operation depends on minimizing downtime and overcoming the problems which are a constant part of everyday life – breakdowns, late deliveries and accidents included! Obviously, the larger the operation, the more senior and experienced the person responsible is likely to be and should a company be seeking to find a new Manufacturing manager, they are very likely to consider external recruitment unless the company is large enough to have a pool of candidates who have the demonstrated competence. Reporting to this individual will be a core of engineers responsible for the manufacturing plant. The precise nature of their expertise will depend on the type of product and manufacturing operation. There may even be an occasional physicist, especially if the process involves lasers, and chemist, for example in the Quality Control Laboratory. However their roles will be a long way from R&D and very focused on the maintenance of the manufacturing process. The actual production line is likely to be staffed with operators and/or assemblers who may be trained on the job. At least a proportion of these are likely to be contracted in to manage swings in production volume.
Sales is very different from the foregoing in at least these respects – it has an almost completely external focus, it involves daily contact with the external world – particularly customers and prospective customers, and is normally the sole source of the company’s commercial income*. It is perhaps the ultimate key to a company’s success – unless it sells products at a profit the company by definition will always be loss-making. The person leading the Sales organization may have almost any kind of academic qualifications (or none) but is likely to have demonstrated his competence in previous sales positions. This competence will include the ability to cultivate potential customers – convincing them of the company’s product offering (when the price, quality, warranty etc has probably been determined by others), satisfy existing customers by ensuring that promises are kept – products are delivered on time, installations are completed and work from the start, and problems are addressed promptly. In larger organizations, his competence will also include demonstrated ability to plan, lead and motivate a sales group. While the leader may have no technical qualifications there are likely to be some in the sales force – particularly, but not exclusively engineers, especially if the company sells into high technology industries such as Telecommunication companies. If such a relationship is to be successful and long-standing, it probably must be founded on a sound understanding at a technical level and the lead sales person is likely to be technically competent to explain the detailed attributed of his products – not just the modules but the systems they are incorporated into. Also, should the company integrate and sell systems, it will employ engineers to design and build them and installers to put them into operation. Installation may be contracted out or done by in-house staff. It is worth recognizing however that installers are needed throughout the industry, that most are trained on the job (although there is now a certification process in the USA) and it is probably one of the easiest ways to break into the solar electric industry
*Others, e.g. Technology may get some "income" in the form of grants but these seldom include any profit element.
Training and Education
The growth projected for renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power is mirrored in the projections for other clean energy technologies such as fuel cells. These growing industries will demand qualified personnel who simply cannot come from within the existing industry workforces – they are simply too small. Thus the training and education of a new cadre of clean energy specialists is essential to underpin the projected growth. In addition, this cadre must cover every skill level required by the burgeoning industries – from semi-skilled to seasoned professional! Fortunately this need is being recognized across the world and programs have been, and are being initiated, to address it.
Most professionals who work in these industries now obtained their qualifications the traditional way – through regular degree and professional examinations in the sciences, engineering or one of the many business disciplines. Their clean energy industry expertise has accrued from hands – on experience in the industry. This will continue in future, but an increasing proportion of professionals – particularly in the technology areas (science and engineering) will already possess industry specific knowledge and perhaps qualifications when they qualify.
In the United States, colleges are starting to offer courses in alternative or renewable energy production and some, like the Appalachian State University, offer both bachelor’s and master’s degree programs focusing primarily on some aspect of renewable energy production. The San Juan College in New Mexico offers a two year Associates degree or one year certificate in renewable energy technologies.
However, it is Australia which appears to be in the forefront, particularly of photovoltaic education: The Technical and Further Education sector (TAFE) offers courses in every state which lead to a nationally recognized Certificate IV in renewable energy systems, energy efficient building design and micro-hydro systems. Western Power, which owns all the electricity grids in Western Australia, found it impossible to find appropriately trained engineers for its rapidly expanding use of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar electric power and took the initiative to fund the establishment of a new undergraduate engineering program at Murdoch University specifically addressing their need. In addition, the Australian Cooperative Centre for Renewable Energy offers not only a BS Applied Science in Energy Studies, but an MS in Renewable Energy Technology. The University of New South Wales offers BE, PhD and ME in photovoltaic engineering while the University of Melbourne offers an MS in Energy and Development.
While most of the highly paid jobs in these industries are, and probably will continue to be filled by college graduates it must be understood that the businesses also require less highly skilled people for jobs such as assembly line workers, laboratory assistants, clerical assistants, cleaners, and a whole lot more! This short list of jobs can be found in the manufacturing part of many renewable energy companies. In addition, those companies installing systems for the end user also need installers. In the solar energy industry, there is need for installers is already great and is increasing so quickly that such people are in great demand.
So What Qualifications are Needed for These Jobs?
No specific qualifications are likely to be needed for many of the jobs in this category, since training is often provided by the employer. However, bear in mind that qualifications do help differentiate applicants and previous experience in similar jobs is often taken into account.
In certain jobs however, it does help to be qualified. The need for qualified solar electric system installers has been recognized in the USA through the establishment of a national certification program overseen by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). The first qualifying exams were held in October 2003! However, since the process has just been started, very few installers actually possess the qualification but it is certain to become increasingly important in the future. Entry into scheme is relatively easy and appropriate training course are widespread.
To become certified, an applicant must:
1. Be at least 18 years of age
2. Meet prerequisites of related experience and/or education
3. Complete an application form documenting requirements
4. Sign a code of ethics
5. Pay a reasonable application/exam fee
6. Pass a written exam
The certification time period will be three years. To maintain certification, certificants will complete a continuing education requirement and a specified number of documented installations every three years. See maintenance requirement below.
To qualify to sit for the NABCEP PV Installer Certification examination, the candidate must demonstrate that he/she meets at least one of the following minimum entry requirement tracks:
a) Four years of experience installing PV or,
b) Two years of experience installing PV systems in addition to completion of a board-recognized training program or,
c) Be an existing licensed contractor in good standing in solar or electrical-construction related areas with one year of experience installing PV systems or,
d) Four years of electrical-construction related experience working for a licensed contractor, including one year of experience installing PV systems or,
e) Three years experience in a U.S. Dept. of Labor approved electrical-construction trade apprentice program, including one year of experience installing PV systems or,
f) Two-year electrical-construction related, or electrical engineering technology, or renewable energy technology/technician degree from an educational institution plus one year of experience installing PV systems or,
g) Four-year construction related or engineering degree from an educational institution, including one year experience installing PV systems.
The future importance of renewable energy technologies has also been recognized by unions. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has been training journeymen electrical wiremen since 1996 in the construction of solar photovoltaic installations and over 2000 have already completed the qualification.
References and useful links:
National Solar Jobs Census 2012: The Solar Foundation, November 2012
Solar Generation V – 2008: Solar electricity for over one billion people and two million jobs by 2020, Greenpeace and EPIA
2008 Solar Technologies Market Report, January 2010, Selya Price and Robert Margolis, US DOE, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable Low-Carbon World, Worldwatch Institute (for UNEP), UNEP/ILO/IOE/ITUC, September 2008
Low Carbon Jobs for Europe, Meera Ghani-Eneland,WWF-World Wildlife Fund, June 2009
2010 Survey of Energy Resources, World Energy Council
Technology Roadmap: Solar Photovoltaic Energy, IEA, 2010
American Solar Energy Association
European Photovoltaic Association
US DOE Energy Information Administration