More than installation … job variety in the PV solar industry
It takes a lot of varied talent, creative thinking, and hardcore expertise to bring a solar energy project to life. So, you could find work in a wide range of areas, from ecology and planning to law, project management, and communications. Let’s not forget the core functions of sales and marketing, too… those solar panels won’t always sell themselves! Your solar energy career could even see you traveling the globe, working with talented people from a range of backgrounds and cultures.
This article is going to introduce the variety of jobs in the PV industry. It especially speaks to those who do not necessarily have a professional qualification in electrical or mechanical engineering, but who nevertheless display certain skills and traits that lend well to a career in solar energy – the possibilities are endless! As with most industries, those skills will vary from job to job. If you want to specialize in any area, keep in mind that larger firms are more likely to provide specific, on-the-job training as you build your career.
So what kind of jobs exist in the solar industry?
Let’s give you an overview of the tasks that need to be done. This list is not exhaustive and every company probably has a different way of handling projects, so you will find job descriptions that combine several tasks in one position. But we want to give you an idea of the variety of tasks in our industry and what qualification is required and hopefully, you find one that sounds like it is made for you!
In the broadest sense, project managers (PMs) are responsible for planning, organizing, and directing the completion of specific projects for an organization while ensuring these projects are on time, on budget, and within scope. You will stay with the project from start to end. Your great communication and people management skills will come into play, as will your ability for self-organization. Knowledge of solar is useful but not critical because the design and installation of the system will be done by experts.
A PV solar system is a big investment for clients; they need to feel that they can trust you to deliver on the performance and longevity of the goods promised. Sensitivity and the ability to listen to comprehend are important skills for a role like this. A basic technical knowledge will help you explain PV and energy storage technology to clients in a way that they can understand. You’re basically selling the greatest product ever and you’ll go far if you understand the motivation driving your client: are they looking for a cleaner energy source, do they want to save money on their electricity bill, do they want backup power for load-shedding? Your listening skills and the ability to hear what isn’t being said will make all the difference to closing that deal.
The more you understand your product or service, the better you can explain it to your target market – what it is, what it does, how it can make life easier. There is lots of room for creativity and experimenting with different media – what works best for that company’s audience? There are opportunities both for people who specialize in B2B marketing – perhaps you work for a wholesaler/reseller and your clients are already in the solar industry – as well as B2C marketing, where your audience might be homeowners or businesses or even clients in the large industrial or agricultural space. A marketing background combined with solid digital media skills will be an asset in this position
A person with a solid background in procurement and logistics will always be a good investment. Every item in the design of the system needs to be sourced, at the best price to maximize profits, from the solar modules to the fuses. Experience in import will be a bonus, particularly when buying in bulk from overseas suppliers, as in the case of a distributor/reseller or a solar installation company that specializes in commercial and industrial installations.
A thorough financial assessment will need to be carried out in the case of large-scale commercial and industrial systems, to help the client understand potential savings, amortization period, the return on investment, any tax implications and benefits, and so on. To bring yourself up to speed on the solar-specific considerations to be taken into account, you will benefit from our 1-day advanced course in PV System Financing.
Project Planner / System Designer
Predominantly an office job, although site visits may be required before and after installation, system designers use specialized software such as Valentin’s PV*SOL Premium to plan PV systems. Each system is unique and is designed to meet that particular client’s needs. The client’s energy demands (when and how they consume energy), their location, the space available, the application of their system, are all factors that need to be taken into account when deciding how many modules are required, what kind of inverter/s will be used, will there be battery banks for energy storage, how big must that battery bank be and so on. This role will call for strong data-handling skills. If you can spot patterns, solve problems, or come up with new ideas from said data, that’s particularly fantastic.
The people who climb onto roofs to physically mount the solar panels are but one step in the chain of designing and deploying a PV solar system for clients. With the correct safety procedures and gear in place, there is nothing to stop you from doing some hands-on work in the sun with your team. Once all the components have been costed and gathered, it’s time for the installation team to head out to the site and begin the process of mounting the solar panels, positioning the inverters and batteries, and connecting the system according to the wiring diagram supplied by the designer of the system. Most inverters will need to be programmed according to the system design; this can be done on-site or remotely by someone who has a background in or knack for basic coding.
Although the majority of today’s smart inverters come with software that allows the system owner to monitor energy production and energy usage, it often takes a seasoned eye to spot trends that could indicate potential problems with the system. Solar companies will offer clients an O&M (operation and maintenance) that includes system monitoring as well as regular site visits. Sometimes, you will be able to tweak inverter settings remotely to get the system performing at its optimum again, but most often, you will need to send out a team to do some kind of physical adjustment or repair.
Solar panels also need to be regularly cleared of dust and debris, especially during winter months when there is little to no rainfall. Such a service could form part of your maintenance contract with the client or it can be carried out by independent contractors.
A person with a very client-centric drive will be a great addition to a maintenance team, to do the follow-up calls to clients, to gather feedback to improve on their offerings and testimonials to add to their marketing material, and to organize any after-sales work that needs to be undertaken by the company
We’ve focused quite a bit on opportunities in businesses who do actual installations, but you might also find you enjoy working as a Product Manager for a solar wholesaler, championing your product or range to the B2B audience of installer companies, or at a manufacturer of solar equipment, many of whom have branches in SA. If you’re an electronics whiz, there might be space in a manufacturer’s R&D department, and an opportunity to create new products.
So how do you get your foot in the door of a company involved in solar energy? We recommend attending basic training to cement your understanding of the technology, its features, and its benefits. Start networking! Did you know that participation in the SuperSolarSchool grants you entry into Africa’s largest alumni installer network, with knowledge and opportunities aplenty? Other powerful platforms for building connections with others already in the industry, are LinkedIn and trade/expos.
We hope this article encourages you to just “go for it” – work with what you have. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you’re not a “solar engineer” by trade … because such a thing doesn’t exist! Most people come into solar from other industries, and not being a solar expert doesn’t exclude you from finding your niche in the future of energy.