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Solar Energy Industry Workers

The Job

There are different ways to turn the sun’s energy into a useful power source. The most common technology today uses photovoltaic (PV) cells. When a PV cell is directly hit by sunlight, the materials inside it absorb this light. Simply put, the activity of absorption frees electrons, which then travel through a circuit. Electrons traveling through a circuit produce electricity. Many PV cells can be linked together to produce unlimited amounts of electricity.

The concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies use mirrors or lenses to focus sunlight onto a receiver. The receiver collects sunlight as heat, which can be used directly or generated into electricity. The four CSP methods used are parabolic trough systems, power towers, parabolic dishes, and compact linear Fresnel systems that concentrate thermal energy to power a conventional steam turbine. Parabolic troughs can produce solar electricity inexpensively compared to the other methods, and they can generate enough power for large-scale projects. Power towers can also generate power for large-scale projects, while parabolic dishes are used for smaller-scale projects. Flat mirrors are used in compact linear Fresnel systems, which allows for more reflectors to be added to a solar array. This technology allows solar infrastructure to use less land surface than other technologies.

Using solar collectors and storage tanks, the sun’s energy can be used to heat water for swimming pools or buildings. Many schools, hospitals, prisons, and government facilities use solar technology for their water use. This technology can also be used for cooling. Desiccant systems remove moisture from the air, thereby making it more comfortable. Absorption chiller systems are the most common solar cooling systems. These systems produce air-conditioning without using electricity.

A building’s design or construction materials can also utilize the sun’s energy to provide the building’s heating and light through passive solar design, water heating, or with electrical PV cells. Architects design structures whose locations are chosen to take advantage of the power of the sun, or they may lay the facilities out so as to avoid excessive heat.

The U.S. Department of Labor breaks the solar energy industry down into the following subsectors: Scientific Research; Solar Power Engineering; Manufacturing for Solar Power; Solar Power Plant Development; Solar Power Plant Construction; Solar Power Plant Operations; Solar Panel Installation and Maintenance; and Support Positions. The following paragraphs provide information on jobs in each subsector. Workers can be employed in more than one subsector. Many of these workers are also employed outside the renewable energy industry.

Scientific Research

Physicists work with scientists and engineers to improve the efficiency of solar panels and find new materials to use for solar panel generation.

Chemists develop new materials to make solar cells, improve existing materials, and work to improve overall solar cell design.

Materials scientists conduct research to find ways to increase the efficiency of solar panels—meaning the amount of energy that is collected by solar cells.

Solar Power Engineering

Solar engineers work in any number of areas of engineering products that help harness energy from the sun. They may research, design, and develop new products, or they may work in testing, production, or maintenance. They may collect and manage data to help design solar systems. Types of products solar engineers work on may include solar panels, solar-powered technology, communications and navigation systems, heating and cooling systems, and even cars. Solar engineers are frequently electrical, mechanical, civil, chemical, industrial, or materials engineers who are working on solar projects and designing photovoltaic systems.

Computer software developers design and develop software that is used to forecast sunlight and weather patterns to determine whether it will be feasible and cost effective to build solar infrastructure in a particular area. Those who work at power plants develop software that is used to monitor and control plant operations, including adjusting mirrors or photovoltaic panels to increase the amount of energy that is captured as the sun moves in the sky.

Engineering technicians use engineering, science, and mathematics to help solar engineers and other professionals in research and development, quality control, manufacturing, and many other fields.

Manufacturing for Solar Power

Semiconductor processors are highly skilled workers who oversee the process of converting semiconductors (microchips or integrated circuits) into photovoltaic cells.

Computer-controlled machine tool operators run machinery that forms and shapes solar panels or mirror components for concentrating solar plants or the components of photovoltaic panels. Production of these products requires highly precise cutting.  

Welding, soldering, and brazing workers use heat to join small cells that are soldered to electric circuitry, which are then combined to make solar panels. These workers may also oversee machinery that performs these tasks. 

Glaziers prepare the glass or laminate that sits atop solar panels. They install and secure the glass or laminate, then use rubber, silicone, or vinyl compounds to securely join the materials to the solar panel. They also help manufacture, install, and maintain delicate and expensive mirrors that are used in concentrating solar plants.

Electrical and electronic installers and repairers are responsible for the complex equipment used in solar manufacturing that monitors and controls production processes on the factory floor. 

Electrical and electronic equipment assemblers put together complex electrical circuitry in solar panels and the components that connect solar panels.

Industrial production managers plan and coordinate all work activity on the factory floor. They determine what equipment should be used, if new equipment is needed, manage workers and production schedules (including scheduling overtime), and troubleshoot any labor or mechanical problems that emerge in order to keep production running smoothly.

Solar Power Plant Development

Real estate brokers obtain land via purchase or lease on which to build power plants. They have specialized knowledge of property specifications for solar power plants and the rules that have been established to obtain ownership or use of the property.

Atmospheric scientists (including meteorologists) study weather patterns and the atmosphere in order to help solar power industry officials decide where to build power plants or large commercial solar projects. They also work for small consulting firms that provide advice to businesses and homeowners that are interested in installing solar power.

Environmental scientists use physical science (such as biology, chemistry, and geology) and social science (including conservation and resource management) to study and assess the environment in relation to the impact human activity has on it, as well as damage incurred through natural interactions. They ensure that environmental laws and regulations are being met, help prevent violations before they occur, and help protect sensitive ecosystems (such as desert environments where many solar facilities are built).

Solar Power Plant Construction

Construction managers oversee the planning and building of solar power plants. They supervise teams made up of construction workers, engineers, and scientists.

Civil engineers use their knowledge of materials science and engineering theory to design and oversee the construction of solar power plants and related infrastructure (such as roads, support structures, and foundations).

The actual construction work is performed by a diverse group of professionals that includes construction laborers, construction equipment operators, welders, structural iron and steel workers, plumbers, and carpenters.

Solar Power Plant Operations

Power plant operators work in control rooms to monitor the generation and distribution of power. They also conduct periodic inspections of equipment throughout the plant to ensure that it is operating properly. 

Electricians install and maintain the equipment and wiring that connects the power plant to the electrical grid, which delivers power to consumers.

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters assemble, install, alter, and repair pipes and pipe systems that carry heat-transfer material—molten salt or synthetic oil—throughout the plant and into heat containment units. Other pipes in the plant carry steam from the heaters to the turbines that create electricity.

Electrical and electronics installers and repairers install, maintain, and repair electronic power equipment that manages and controls substations, generating plants, and monitoring equipment.

Electrical engineers control monitoring transmission and electrical generation devices that are used in power plants. 

Solar Panel Installation and Maintenance

The career of solar photovoltaic installer is one of the most popular professions in the solar power industry. These workers are specially trained to install commercial and residential solar projects. They use hand and power tools to carefully attach solar panels to the roofs of buildings or to other structures. They make sure that the systems are set up correctly and troubleshoot and repair any problems. Solar photovoltaic installers have comprehensive knowledge of electrical wiring, especially as it relates to the installation of solar panels.

Solar energy installation managers supervise work crews that install solar photovoltaic or thermal systems.

Site assessors study a proposed solar panel installation site to determine how much energy can be collected at the site. They make recommendations on the best type, size, and layout of solar panels that will maximize energy collection. They create installation plans for installers. 

Cost estimators use standard estimating techniques to calculate the cost of solar installations, solar power plant construction projects, or the manufacturing of photovoltaic technology.

Electricians install and maintain all the wiring and equipment that is associated with setting up a solar power system at a home or business. They connect the solar panel, inverter (a device that converts the direct current generated by the solar cells into an alternative current that can be used in homes and businesses), and other equipment to the power supply.

Plumbers are responsible for installing solar water heating systems and connecting them to a building’s plumbing.

Roofers repair and seal any holes or cuts that were made to the roof as a result of installation of solar panels. They might also help solar photovoltaic installers place structural supports and mounting systems for solar panels on the roof.

Support Positions

Support workers perform clerical duties; supervise workers; manage computer databases; oversee advertising and marketing campaigns; respond to press inquiries; maintain records; educate the public; and do many other tasks. Secretaries, receptionists, customer service representatives, advertising and marketing workers, media relations specialists, personnel and human resources specialists, lawyers, accountants, information technology workers, and educators are just some of the types of support workers who are employed in this industry. Many of these workers are also employed outside the renewable energy industry.