Breaking into the solar energy industry
Solar was the fastest-growing energy sector in the United States last year, growing a record 67 percent in 2010. Nevada was one of the top 10 states for solar photovoltaic installation last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. With plenty of sun and land, there’s no natural reason Nevada couldn’t be at the forefront of the solar energy industry.
Many job seekers are looking for a position in the solar field. There aren’t enough jobs to meet the demand of a state where more than 13 percent are unemployed. However, for certain people, the solar world could be a promising one, if they’re willing to make some wise choices and put in some time.
“If someone goes to TMCC or UNR and takes a semester, I’m not discounting that,” says Shawn O’Meara, owner of solar and wind installation company Aspen Electric. “But that won’t make you a solar installer.”
It could, however, help get you in the door to an entry-level position. Truckee Meadows Community College offers an associate of applied science degree with an emphasis on renewable energy. Within that are classes on solar PV certification. TMCC also offers non-credit workshops and seminars to help working adults upgrade their skills. Solar is also a key component of the University of Nevada, Reno’s renewable energy minor. And there’s a hands-on apprenticeship program through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union.
Certain trades are already well suited to transition into solar energy.
“For an electrician to learn solar, it’s a small step, and it’s a good step,” says O’Meara. “They can draw on their experience and take that TMCC or UNR class and not just step into an entry-level position but get a comparable job. That’s where I came from.” O’Meara began as an apprentice electrician about 20 years ago before going full-time into solar in 2009. That’s when the federal government increased the federal tax credit for renewable energy installations to 30 percent. Before that, solar installers relied mostly on business spurred by NV Energy’s solar rebate program, which were offered once a year—meaning a mad push at the time but little work the rest of the year. Now, O’Meara says much of the construction work being done in Northern Nevada is for solar and wind energy systems.
However, barriers remain. Currently, solar advocates are asking the legislature to resurrect the NV Energy rebate program, which burned through three years of rebates last spring while trying to accommodate the backlog in demand for them. “If the legislature doesn’t do anything, there won’t be any rebates for three years,” says O’Meara. And budget threats to the federal loan guarantee program could also impact renewable energy projects in Nevada.
In short, electricians, construction workers and engineers may find the transition to solar energy work easier than others, but they will still require training through classes and on the job. And salespeople should know about the technical, not just marketing, aspects of solar. The field also needs people who know about permitting, design and political advocacy, given that the fledgling industry is still educating consumers and lawmakers about solar.
O’Meara says he expects, at least in the short term, a glut of trained workers without enough solar jobs to go around. However, he adds, “I don’t want to discourage anyone from getting into it. If someone is determined, they will get into it. It’s just going to take some time.”