By Mary Lou Jay
More and more, America is turning to clean energy. Solar and wind are the country’s fast-growing renewable energy sources. For job seekers and career changers interested in good jobs in the green economy, that makes these industries the place to be.
Clean energy careers are worth a look if only for the pay. Mean hourly wages exceed national averages by 8% to 19% . Even workers at the low end of the income scale earn $5 to $10 more per hour in this sector than in the rest of the economy. And despite the solid paychecks, you don’t need to spend four years in college to get in the door. In fact, according to a report from the Brookings Institution, many workers in certain clean energy jobs have no more than a high school diploma.
Solar Opportunities Shine Bright
A big drop in the cost of solar technology has sent solar energy into the mainstream. The United States today has 85 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar capacity, enough to power 15.7 million homes. Another 100 GW of solar will be installed from 2021 to 2025, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association — 42% more than was installed over the last five years.
It’s no wonder solar jobs are hot.
“As of 2019, there were 250,000 Americans working in solar, an increase of 167% since 2010,” said Avery Palmer, communications director at the Solar Foundation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, solar photovoltaic installer (aka solar energy technician) jobs are projected to grow a massive 51% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average growth for all occupations.
Jobs in solar range from entry-level panel assembler to mid-level solar energy technician to photovoltaic system designer to various leadership positions that require advanced degrees. Most (56%) of the solar jobs right now are in distributed solar — in other words, residential rooftop systems. Community and non-residential solar projects account for 25% of the solar workforce, and utility-scale solar jobs account for the rest.
Utility-scale projects typically call for hundreds of entry-level workers, and to get the people they need, companies often offer on-the-job training. McCarthy Building Companies, for example, has a rigorous on-the-job training program for workers with zero solar experience that teaches them the skills they need right away and eventually, the skills that can lead to promotions. Community colleges also offer solar technician training programs.
“A major benefit of working in this young and dynamic industry is the opportunity for rapid advancement,” said Palmer. “It’s not uncommon for a worker to start out as an entry-level installer and then very quickly rise through the ranks with increased salary and responsibilities.”
Wind Energy Powers Job Creation
The wind power industry, which has grown about 10% a year since 2014, is generating new jobs. Many involve wrench time on the more than 57,000 wind turbines currently generating electricity in the United States . In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies wind turbine technician as the fastest-growing job in the United States, with a median pay of almost $53,000 per year. The U.S. government projects 108% growth in these positions in the next decade.
“We have a very strong pipeline of new projects looking to add to the electricity system over the next couple of years,” said John Hensley, vice president of research and analytics at the American Wind Energy Association. Today, installed wind turbines can produce about 110 GW of power — enough to power the equivalent of 32 million homes and support 500 factories — and current projects will bring another 44 GW online.
Wind farms built to serve the utilities are the largest segment of this industry. But wind farms built by private companies like Google, GM and Verizon that want to generate their own energy are on the rise. “The company wind farms are very large, generally more than 100 MW projects, made up of tens if not hundreds of wind turbines,” explained Hensley. Residential wind energy projects, like the turbines farmers use to power irrigation, represent a small portion of the market.
For people who live in rural areas, wind energy provides a chance to get a good job close to home. All but nine states have onshore wind power facilities and/or projects underway. The southeastern states don’t get enough wind to generate electricity, but even those states may have wind power manufacturing and supply chain jobs.
Today, most wind farms are onshore, but the offshore wind power industry is set to grow in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. More than 20% of the wind projects underway there are offshore. States are readying their workforces. New Jersey, for example, plans to provide $4.5 million to support workforce development projects, including wind turbine technician training programs, that prepare residents for offshore wind jobs.
The workers needed to install, operate and maintain wind-generating facilities include not only wind turbine technicians but also electricians and other skilled craftspeople like construction equipment operators. (The cranes used in wind turbine construction are some of the largest in the world.) Offshore turbine projects require mariners, marine transport operators, welders, pipefitters, pile drivers and mechanics.
Many people who work in the wind power industry start off with technical school training or a two-year associate degree, which may include an internship. The U.S. Department of Energy provides a map showing the location of wind energy education and training programs in the U.S., and you can find wind technician training programs here on SkillPointe. Other workers go straight into on-the-job training.
The winds of change are blowing as America moves toward replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. While jobs in wind and solar offer good pay and opportunities for advancement, they also offer something else: the satisfaction of helping to make the world a little greener.
Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay has written about construction, trucking and other skilled trades for a variety of publications.