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Another Trip Around the Sun

The solar power industry is booming, but many employers struggle to find qualified workers.

The solar power industry is beginning to have its own moment in the sun.

Working in areas that were once farfetched ideas –– that you could power your home with rays from the sun, or that water and wind turbines could generate electricity –– is now becoming a large part of the nation’s economy. Over the last several years, the solar industry has been experiencing a job boom that’s only expected to continue to grow –– and at a much faster pace than most other fields, as well as the national workforce as a whole.

Employment in the solar industry specifically has grown by more than 120 percent since 2010, according to annual data compiled by The Solar Foundation. The tens of thousands of jobs added in the solar industry each year also encompass a range of different purposes fit for individuals with varying levels of education, skills, and experience. And even the lowest-paying solar jobs in assembly and installation tend to pay more than the median wage for all occupations in the nation. 

Michael Zarate –– who now works as an installer for SunRun, a solar company based on Colorado –– got his start in the industry through Solar Ready Vets, a collaboration between the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense that gives military veterans hands-on training and education. Zarate spent six weeks learning the trade last year at Tidewater Community College in Virginia, shortly after leaving the Navy.

Learning the trade of renewable energy was a completely new path for Zarate, who says he worked with weapons while in the military. Because he enlisted immediately after high school and had only taken a handful of college courses while on active duty, Zarate says the solar training program seemed like an interesting path, and a way to eventually advance his career.

“There was so much information during the training,” Zarate says. “We learned about the history of solar energy, all the way to the development of solar modules … anything that you can think of related to solar energy.”

And once he got his foot in the door of the solar industry, Zarate says he was amazed by the number of people looking to install solar panels on their homes, as well as solar array fields in the surrounding area.

“I definitely believe the country is moving that way, toward renewable energy, and I think that’s a good thing,” he says.

But why is renewable energy just now seeing such an explosive growth?

For one, the cost of installing things like solar photovoltaic systems –– the solar panels that many homeowners are placing on their roofs –– has come down dramatically over the last decade, according to Billy Connelly, communications manager for The Solar Foundation. But external factors have also influenced the shift, as society becomes more welcoming to the idea of moving to renewable energy sources.

Utilizing solar power seems like a logical choice. According to the Department of Energy, each hour the sun strikes the Earth with enough energy to power the planet for an entire year.

But as with any challenge to the status quo, the push to move to renewable energy sources –– including solar power –– has at times been packed with politics. Some argue that solar panels are still too expensive compared to other types of energy sources, and that technology has not advanced as much as necessary. 

Overall, it’s a combination of both societal and political pressures, says Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

Jacobson says that according to his calculations, it is theoretically possible that the entire world could be powered using renewable energy –– thereby eliminating the fossil fuel, coal, gas, and nuclear industries altogether –– by 2050. And while some nations are well on their way to making that happen, there are many obstacles that stand in the way for the United States. Making the transition to entirely renewable energy means not only doing so for electric power, but also heating and cooling, transportation, and industry. 

Well-known companies –– such as IKEA, Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Johnson & Johnson –– have committed to work toward using 100 percent renewable energy. But it’s a much different transition for those sorts of companies that simply use a large amount of electricity. Other companies more focused on manufacturing (think Ford, or GM) that not only use electricity, but also burn fuel, might be more reluctant to make such a commitment.

Some families might not feel a strong motivation to swap out a gas heater for an electric heating pump, for example. And while there are tax credits available for households that install clean energy systems, many are unaware of the benefit, or simply unwilling to make the change.

“People who have existing infrastructure, they generally don’t want to change things unless they’re forced to, or unless they have a strong financial incentive to do it,” Jacobson says.

But other developing countries that haven’t had the same reliance on fossil fuels or a traditional power grid system as the United States are embracing the change to renewable energy through solar power.

Just this month, the world’s largest concentrated solar plant opened in Morocco. Another opened up last year in Rwanda. Meanwhile, other countries in Africa –– such as Nigeria and Kenya –– are rapidly increasing their use of renewable energy. While the majority of their energy production still comes from nonrenewable sources, solar power is an increasingly attractive and affordable option for rural countries where power grid systems have been largely unsupportable.

In that sense, it’s easier to start from scratch. But perhaps the biggest barrier in the United States is the transfer of information, Jacobson says.

"There’s certainly a lot of willpower to do it, and there’s a transition going on. Now, we need to speed up that transition, and whether we can get everybody else on board, it’s still a work in progress,” Jacobson says. “It’s mostly education –– most people aren’t aware of what’s possible.”

The United States is home to some of the brightest scientific minds capable of producing the technology necessary to increase renewable energy production, but the scientifically-backed information is often drowned out simply because there are so many people with general ideas and opinions about renewable energy, Jacobson says. Amid the chatter, it’s hard to decipher what’s actually possible, and what’s backed by research and science.

Marye Anne Fox, chancellor of the University of California–San Diego and a recipient of the National Medal of Science for chemistry, has conducted extensive research in organic photochemistry and electrochemistry that created building blocks to understanding solar energy conversion. In 1995, for example, she published work on the idea of “water splitting,” a way to mimic the natural process of photosynthesis, by which plants convert solar energy into chemical energy.

Armand Paul Alivisatos of the University of California–Berkeley in 2000 published research showing that non-metal nanocrystals –– clusters of atoms that previously were one-dimensional –– could be shaped in different ways, and then stacked to create small electronic devices.

His research led the way to using nanocrystals as light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, and eventually in hybrid solar cells that combine the nanocrystals with plastic. The hybrid solar cells create a win-win situation: they have more reliable electronic properties, and can be manufactured in larger quantities at a lower cost.

Research to advance the change to renewable energy might initially reach only 10,000 people, rather than the millions needed to bring about swift change, but there’s a mini-transition picking up steam. 

Federal and state agencies are putting more weight behind the movement. More than half of all states now have renewable portfolio standards, regulations that require a certain percentage of energy be produced by renewable sources, such as wind, solar, or geothermal. Some states, such as Texas, were early adopters of the standards, but many more have added their goals in the last decade. California, for example, has a goal that half of the energy produced in the state come from renewable sources by 2030. Other states, such as Hawaii, are more ambitious, with goals of up to 100 percent by 2045.

The urgency around beginning the move to renewable energy sources –– before traditional sources run dry –– has even reached a global level. Shortly after the Paris climate agreement between nearly 200 countries, including the United States, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, asked business leaders from around the globe to double their investments in clean energy.

Consumers, too, are driving the demand for more solar power.

“We have a much more educated consumer population than ever before,” Connelly says. “People do know where their energy comes from, and they know a lot more than their grandparents or parents did about impact that conventional energy has on the local environment and the global ecosystem that we all share. Having a more educated consumer base means they’re making smarter decisions, and they’re asking tougher questions.”

A pitfall of the swift growth in solar industry jobs and other areas of renewable energy is a lack of qualified workers. According to The Solar Foundation’s annual census report, about 1 in 5 employers say it’s very difficult to find employees with the skills they need, and in most sectors of the industry that difficulty is increasing year to year. Part of the problem is that employers are looking for experience, and because the solar industry is still relatively new, it’s hard to find workers with a background in the industry, or with relatively transferrable skills.

That’s why in recent years programs have been built up at community colleges and universities, and through partnerships with federal agencies and industry employers.

The Solar Instructor Training Network –– a project of the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which also oversees the Solar Ready Vets program –– provides a way for individuals to search for regional training locations.

“The way we generate and use energy on this planet, we know it has an impact on the local and global ecosystem,” The Solar Foundation’s Connelly says. “People working in the solar industry know they’re working for an industry that’s working to solve these problems.”