Solar Energy Technology
Solar energy technology education explores the design and production of solar panels and components. Learn about related degree programs, employment options and salary info for careers in this field.
Is Solar Energy Technology for Me?
Research in solar energy technology is directed primarily toward developing thin-film semiconducting materials for solar cells, to make solar panels more efficient and affordable.
With an aptitude for mathematics and science, you could become part of an interdisciplinary research and development team, either as a scientist, who develops the thin-film for solar cells or an engineer, who designs and tests product prototypes. If you are curious about the reactivity of finite matter, you could become a physicist, applying mathematical formulas to determine how electrons from the sun can be transformed into electricity in an efficient manner.
This science is also the purview of chemists, materials scientists and materials engineers, who study crystalline silicon and organic compounds that conduct electricity in the solar cell. As a chemical engineer or mechanical engineer, you would be concerned with the unique manufacturing of solar cells, which requires a 'clean room' for handling delicate silicon and organic materials.
If you prefer to work with your hands, the solar energy field is creating new jobs for technicians, installers and salespeople. Engineering technicians provides assistance to engineers by building and testing new equipment designs and recording the results of your experiments. If you have physical strength and agility and would like to work outdoors, you could become a solar installer, who sets up and maintains solar thermal (water-heating) and solar electric power systems on building rooftops or at ground-mounted power plants.
If you are outgoing and persuasive, salespeople knowledgeable about solar systems are needed to show potential users the value of solar energy systems on their homes, businesses and public institutions. In this position, you may need to get on rooftops to assess structural capabilities and environmental conditions in order to craft proposals that recommend the appropriate solar power systems and their costs.
The solar energy is a growing though somewhat volatile industry, largely dependent on government subsidies. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment is expected to grow for occupations in the field of solar energy technology, Although most salary information specific to this field is not available, you could expect substantial salaries as a scientist or engineer.
In 2012, the median annual wage for chemists was $71,770, for materials scientists was $88,990 and for physicists was $106,840. In addition, engineers earned median annual wages ranging from $42,920 for technicians up to $94,350 for chemical engineers. Sales representatives of technical and scientific goods earned a median salary of about $74,970. Solar photovoltaic installers who put in solar panel systems earned a median annual salary of $37,900 in 2012, the BLS said, but you could expect to earn more if you enter the field as an electrician or licensed general construction contractor.
How Can I Work in Solar Energy Technology?
Education in Research and Development
For a career that involves original research and development you would be required to obtain a graduate degree, whether it's in the field of physics, chemistry or materials science. You may find employment in support positions with a bachelor's degree, but a master's degree would deepen your knowledge and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is necessary to perform independent research.
The engineering professions usually require graduate education, but an associate or bachelor's degree is sufficient in some instances. To become an engineering technician, you could attend a community college or technical school, where you would obtain an Associate of Applied Science. As a mechanical engineer, you could get started with an associate degree, but a bachelor's degree or graduate degree would enhance your career opportunities. For chemical engineering, you would need to obtain a master's degree or a Ph.D.
Many educational institutions now offer specialized degrees in renewable energy technology that may be appropriated to enter the field of solar energy technology. Programs range from the associate to the master's level. An environmental engineering bachelor's degree may provide opportunities to work in solar energy technology as well.
Education for Solar Installers
To become a solar installer, you could pursue an Associate of Applied Science with a concentration in a related course of study, such as solar photovoltaic installation or renewable energy technology. You could also enter the field through an apprenticeship in an appropriate construction trade, such as roofing, plumbing or electricity. Regardless of your career pathway, certification through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is required by many states and employers, especially for work on large commercial projects. To become a solar sales representative, education as an engineer would provide the technical knowledge you need to assess solar thermal or solar power systems.