Becoming a Solar Technician – Education, Certification, Career Outlook & Salary

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As climate change continues to become one of the world’s biggest challenges, creating renewable and green energy is critical. According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency, renewable energy is predicted to increase by 50 percent between 2019 and 2024, with power from the sun accounting for 60 percent of that predicted growth.

Solar power is the fastest-growing source of new energy. Solar panels have been around for decades, but it was not until the mid-2000s that more cost-effective panels were developed allowing this low-carbon and renewable energy from the sun to go mainstream. The cost to install solar has dropped by more than 70 percent since 2010, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Not only have large corporations like Walmart, Google, Starbucks, Target, and General Motors signed deals for renewable energy, but household adoption is booming as well.

Photovoltaics refers to the conversion of light into electricity. Photovoltaic (PV) panels, which are usually installed on building rooftops, convert sunlight into electricity to provide power to the building. New technology is currently in development where PV cells are directly incorporated into roof tiles and shingles so that households can produce their own electricity. In the commercial cases, thousands of PV panels are installed at the ground level to generate electricity that is sold to utilities and large businesses; these installations are called solar farms.

Nearly one quarter of a million Americans spend 50 percent or more of their time on solar-related work—more than double the number in 2012—according to The Solar Foundation. An additional 95,000 employees work in solar less than 50 percent of time, for a total of almost 350,000 solar workers nationwide. Specifically, the people who install solar panels are called solar technicians, also known as solar PV installers, solar service technicians, PV technicians, and solar panel installers.

Thanks to the solar power market’s rapid growth, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics has noted a positive job outlook for solar PV installers. It predicts that employment will increase by an astounding 63 percent between 2018 and 2028 and that the industry will open up excellent job opportunities for qualified individuals, particularly those who complete photovoltaic training programs.

What Does a Solar Technician Do?

Solar technicians are responsible for assembling, installing, and maintaining solar panel systems on rooftops or other structures. Solar technicians are often mechanically minded and like to work outdoors. Their work is physical, requiring them to be on their feet most of the day, climb ladders, and carry the panels. A solar technician cannot be afraid of heights and should be comfortable working individually as well as in groups. The installation of solar panels often requires the ability to work as part of a team, while service and maintenance are often solo work.

Solar technicians have a variety of job responsibilities, which depend on their experience. Before installation, solar technicians must identify the location and configuration of the panels, which includes determining the orientation of the panels and confirming the structural integrity of the building. Additionally, installations must conform to federal, state, and local building codes. With these responsibilities, technicians must be able to read blueprints, schematics, and specifications and may need to confer with building inspectors occasionally.

Less-experienced solar technicians may begin their careers by taking measurements, cutting panels, and putting them in place. Installation requires the use of hand tools such as drills and screwdrivers. The panels must then be connected to the electrical grid, a process usually done by more experienced workers. The installation of solar panels also includes setting up batteries, pumps, fans, controls, and support structures so that the solar panels function properly. Once installed, the solar panels must be tested, which includes ensuring that everything is correctly wired and grounded. Some states require licensed electricians to perform the final testing. Once the system is fully installed, any openings in the roof must be sealed and everything weatherproofed. Outside of the initial installation, technicians also regularly service and maintain existing systems and troubleshoot equipment deficiencies or malfunctions.

What Are the Requirements to Become a Solar Technician?

Most companies require that solar technicians have a high school diploma and a valid driver’s license. Learning safety procedures is a priority for companies that offer on-the-job training. Professionals who have attended classes and training programs have better job opportunities, as well as individuals who have related trade experience, such as electricians, roofers, or carpenters, as they already understand aspects of construction and only require minimal additional training.

Salary data website PayScale (2020) confirms the report above by the BLS, noting that companies are beginning to expect solar installation applicants to have specific certifications and job experience.

Outside of the hard skills and training required for this profession, successful technicians must also have excellent communication skills and be able to interact effectively with co-workers, supervisors, and customers.

What Are the Steps to Becoming a Solar Technician?

There are different paths to becoming a solar technician. It is essential, however, to be aware that electronics are becoming more sophisticated and that equipment is increasingly complex, meaning that there is a higher threshold for expertise. Technicians must have more knowledge to obtain entry-level positions than in the past. Below, aspiring solar technicians can find the four most common steps towards this profession.

Step 1: Obtain a high school diploma or GED (four years).

Aspiring solar technicians are advised to take shop classes and learn how to work with their hands from an early age. Since electronics are a growing component of solar installations, students should also take courses in science, math, computers, and electronics.

Students should maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0 and participate in extracurricular activities, which include physical education classes, sports clubs and teams, and volunteer work, internships or part-time jobs for solar or construction companies.

Step 2: Gain further education or training (several months to four years).

Prospective technicians who have worked for solar companies as high school students may be able to continue their on-the-job practice after graduating. Others may be able to find a company willing to hire them without further formal training.

On-the-job training time can vary from one month to one year. Emphasis is often on the use of tools and job safety. Beginners who want more formal training can enroll in community colleges or trade schools, which typically take one to two years. Depending on their goals and abilities, they may also study system design.

Older individuals who have experience as electricians or in construction may choose to take online courses or specialized training offered by their professional organizations. Equipment vendors also provide training on their products. Completion times for any of these rarely exceed a few months.

Step 3: Acquire an advanced degree or certification (timeline varies)

Because solar technology is increasingly sophisticated, so are requirements set in place by regulatory authorities. Technicians who have undergraduate degrees in solar technology, systems design, renewable energy, or alternative energy are helpful, will be in high demand. Outside of a bachelor’s degree, students can also obtain other solar certifications from the following organizations.

  • Electronics Technicians Association – The ETA offers certifications across all sectors of electronics from basic electronics to biomedical sciences and renewable energy. ETA-certified professionals work at large organizations including Motorola, Google, ESPN, and the United States Armed Forces. The best certification for aspiring solar technicians is the Photovoltaic Installer – Level 1 (PVl1) certification, which can only be taken following hands-on training from an ETA-approved school. Students should have a foundational education about solar resources and principles, installation of solar technology, performance characteristics and troubleshooting methods, best safety practices, and economic impact.
  • North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners – The NABCEP offers multiple resources including certification and an associate program for individuals interested in entering the solar field. The organization’s leading accreditation as it relates to solar technicians is the PV Installation Professional (PVIP) certification, which will help solar technicians validate their skills, experience, and training, and differentiate themselves from the competition when looking for positions. There are several other certifications available to technicians looking to specialize in PV technical sales, design, installation, and maintenance. The website also offers practice tests for the PVIP certification and the PV Associate Credential.
  • Roof Integrated Solar Energy – RISE specializes in rooftop and large-scale solar energy installation and takes an integrated approach to solar energy through best practices in construction. The organization offers three different Roof System Installer Certifications for those interested in expanding their rooftop solar knowledge and providing tangible evidence of their knowledge for employers and consumers. Students are expected to have a general understanding of different PV systems, the benefits and risks applicable to building owners, the integration of PV systems with a building’s electrical system, building codes, and post-installation considerations.

Step 4: Get licensed (timeline varies)

Licensing differs from certification. Most states require contractors (i.e., self-employed solar technicians) to be licensed and each state and municipality has its requirements and fees for obtaining licenses. Some states require a separate and specialized solar permit.

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) has a national map of solar licensing conditions in the U.S. Aspiring solar technicians are encouraged to review the licensing requirements for their home state to avoid working outside of what’s permitted.

How Much Do Solar Technicians Make?

Solar technicians salaries depend on experience, education, location, and additional skills. PayScale (2020) notes four categories of this profession—solar energy system installer, solar installer, solar panel installer, and solar technician—and salaries range between $12 and $27 per hour. Those with team leadership skills and experience earn more on average.

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2019) reported that the 11,080 solar photovoltaic installers across the U.S. earned an average annual salary of $46,850 with the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $31,600
  • 25th percentile: $36,310
  • 50th percentile (median): $44,890
  • 75th percentile: $55,680
  • 90th percentile: $63,880

For entry-level employees (i.e., those with less than five years experience), PayScale (2020) indicates that salaries range from $20,000 to $51,000, according to reports from 179 energy system installers. The data also shows that entry-level workers earn three percent less than employees with solar energy/solar power skills, and two percent less than employees with roofing materials installation skills.

Like all jobs, as solar technicians gain experience, their salaries increase. Payscale reports that mid-career solar energy system installers (i.e., those with five to ten years experience) earn 23 percent more than average and employees with more than ten years experience make 73 percent more than average.

Cities That Have the Highest Pay

The BLS (May 2019) reports the following cities as having the highest average annual pay for solar photovoltaic installers:

  • Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA: $72,300 average annual salary
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $58,650
  • Honolulu, HI: $58,630
  • Visalia-Porterville, CA: $58,590
  • Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, HI: $55,450

The high wages of these cities is tied to the economy, regulations, and the weather. California and Hawaii both have thriving energy sectors due to the high cost of electricity and good solar resources.

Hawaii has one of the highest per capita rates of solar power in the country and is the first state to reach grid parity for photovoltaics. California is not far behind, as the state saw its share of solar rise from 0.5 percent of generation in 2010 to ten percent in 2017, as reported in the LA Times. California also recently proposed legislation that will require that all of the state’s power come from renewable sources by 2045.

States That Have the Highest Pay

The BLS (May 2019) reports the following states as having the highest average annual pay for solar photovoltaic installers:

  • Oregon: $58,180
  • Hawaii: $56,920
  • Texas: $53,700
  • Massachusetts: $53,180
  • Arizona: $51,840

The higher wages in these states are generally attributed to their primary industries. They all have economies based on tourism, government or military presence, and high-tech industries.

Please note that only twenty-three states and Puerto Rico have reported employment and wage statistics for solar technicians. Twenty-two cities and metropolitan divisions, and three non-metropolitan areas are all that have detailed employment and wage statistics. The states and cities that have not reported may have significantly higher or lower averages.

The reported salaries do not necessarily reflect the economic status of individuals because the numbers do not account for the differences in the cost of living. For example, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (2020), the cost of living index for Hawaii was 191.8. That is the highest cost of all the states, which some attribute to the Jones Act, and it means that Hawaiians paid $191.80 for what cost $100 in other states.

What Is the Career Outlook and Progression for a Solar Technician?

The BLS (2019) predicts that openings for solar photovoltaic installers will grow 63 percent between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than the average five percent growth predicted for all occupations in the U.S. In fact, this is one of the top-growing occupations across the country. The BLS attributes this increase to the expansion in demand for solar panel installations.

The number of jobs available is a function of the cost of solar installations. Federal, state, and local government incentives make installations more affordable. As solar panels are improved, and more manufactured, the installation costs will decrease. Power companies that offer net metering also offset the cost of solar installations. As more businesses and homeowners can invest in solar power, the demand for solar technicians will increase.

The BLS released a comprehensive report on the growth of solar power in the U.S. and solar-related careers. The list of professions includes scientific research, solar power engineering, manufacturing of solar energy, and solar power plant development, construction, and operations.

Becca Brewer

Becca Brewer, MEd

Becca Brewer is building a better future on a thriving earth by healing herself into wholeness, divesting from separation, and walking the path of the loving heart. Previously to her journey as an adventurer for a just, meaningful, and regenerative world, Becca was a formally trained sexuality educator with a master of education.