ASK THE EXPERTS: Careers in Solar Energy

Beginner
Allan Sindelar at work.
Veteran solar installer Allan Sindelar at work with an off-grid client in New Mexico.

I just read Allan Sindelar’s article, “Engine Generator Basics” in HP131, as a part of an online PV course. According to his bio at the end of the article, Allan has been installing solar-electric systems since 1988. That’s an amazing amount of experience!

Would you mind giving me some advice about becoming a solar electrician? It represents a huge investment in time and money to go through the training and apprenticeship. Would it be worthwhile to invest in becoming a licensed electrician myself, or would you recommend teaming up with someone who is already qualified?

Zach Arnt • via e-mail

I came into the field as a carpenter, not an electrician, and learned on the job, mostly by hiring employees who were electricians. This was in the early days when most solar installation companies were tiny—with four to five employees at most—and we did everything, including sales, design, installation, and service. It’s totally different now. PV has become a commodity, and most companies are structured more like mainstream businesses.

You write that you want to help folks make renewable energy systems a reality in their lives on the residential and small commercial scale, which is a pretty general statement. If your way of accomplishing this is to become an installer, then yes, pursue an electrician’s license if you want a career with a chance for advancement. But there are plenty of ways to accomplish your goal. You could specialize in sales or financing with a focus on PV systems—these don’t require you to be an electrician. A system designer with CAD skills doesn’t need to be an electrician, although installation experience will help tremendously. You could accomplish your goal in many different ways—as a community activist, a journalist, a graphic designer, or with a degree in business management.

Allan Sindelar, Positive Energy • Santa Fe, New Mexico
 

Over the years, Home Power has published several articles on getting into the solar industry. One favorite is “Charting Your Solar Course” (HP136), which outlines many ways you can get on the solar career path, and includes a comprehensive list of education programs that aim to get you started.

Michael WelchHome Power senior editor   


I knew when I first started to pursue a career in renewable energy that the job I wanted to do was hands-on, as a systems installer. So I took classes part-time at my local community college in electrical technology, followed by solar-specific training courses at Solar Energy International. With this initial training, I got a job with a skilled electrician who owned a solar installation company. What I gained from that job was years of real-world training, technical skills, confidence in my ability to install and design high-quality, code-compliant systems and, last but not least, the hours and knowledge necessary to get my electrical license. You mention that it takes an investment of time and money, but don’t forget that apprentices get paid to work. 

It has been more than four years since I got my electrical contracting license in North Carolina, and it was definitely the right path for me. While I now do more training and consulting than installing, it is reassuring to know that I will always have an electrical license to fall back on. Even if you aren’t interested in a hands-on career, I still believe that training and systems installation experience benefit anyone entering the solar industry. I frequently tell students that if they get a job as an installer, even for a short time, they gain a great understanding of the industry.

Rebekah Hren • Solar Energy International

 

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