solar panels on the roof of Blackfriars station

Industry focus: Solar energy

We take a look at the solar energy sector: what are the best routes into this industry, the most sought-after skills and the biggest employers.

Solar is one of the fastest growing energy sectors in the world and 2013 is the first year it will overtake wind capacity according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Its progress hasn't been without its glitches though: in the UK, the impact of the tariff changes in 2011 saw the total number of people employed in the sector reduced from 25,000 to 16,000. According to the Renewable Energy Association, the solar PV and solar thermal industry turnover was estimated at £1.8 billion for 2010-11 but estimates this tripled during the solar boom of 2011.

According to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), the world added 31 Gigawatts (GW) of new solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in 2012, which was similar to the record-setting year of 2011. Now over 100GW of solar power is installed globally.

EPIA's Global Market Outlook for Photovoltaics 2013-2017 also found that for the second year in a row, PV was the number one new source of electricity generation installed in Europe: it covers 2.6 per cent of the electricity demand and 5.2 per cent of the peak electricity demand across Europe. Based on 2012 findings, it also found that the PV industry supports around 265,000 direct jobs, which could rise to one million by 2020.

Outside of Europe, growth is expected to continue in China, India, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In an "accelerated scenario", EPIA predicts that in the so-called ‘sunbelt countries’, which are located 35 degrees within the Equator, 405 GW of solar capacity could provide electricity to 300 million people by 2030.

What's happening in solar?

The solar energy industry is confronting a number of challenges and they are political as well as technical. Like its past, its future development will depend on political policy and commitment.

It has lacked support at times in the UK but it is now viewed as a key technology by the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Solar Trade Association (STA) expects its vital role to be increasingly recognised. The UK has also been hampered by fixed prices of Chinese solar modules until 2015 (the China-EU trade dispute was reportedly the biggest trade dispute ever).

Leonie Greene, spokesperson for the STA says that when the UK can secure access to world pricing again (after 2015), “we expect solar to continue its extraordinary cost reductions and to be the cheapest major [energy] technology".

In the UK, solar's profile has also been raised thanks to major projects such as the solar PV roofs on King's Cross Station and Blackfriars rail bridge in London.

Meanwhile, Greene points to projects that demonstrate how the solar industry is supporting biodiversity and engaging local communities.

"Westmill Solar Park on the Wiltshire and Oxfordshire border is the largest solar co-operative in the world at 5MW and shows local people want to invest in solar," she says. "There are also lovely examples by the National Trust of solar supporting, for example, rare orchid fields."

The UK industry, however, faces a major engineering challenge with local electricity networks struggling to catch up with the rate of solar development. Already some parts of the UK are unable to take new capacity.

"The local networks need a total change in their business model to connect distributed generation like solar and to actively manage local power flows," explains Greene. "The industry is very interested in storage: this is becoming the holy grail of ambient renewables and countries that lead on storage are likely to do very well indeed."

What skills will be in demand?

A range of skills will be required from technician level for domestic solar installations to manufacturing engineering and product innovation and up to grid engineering.

There are product development opportunities in the area of integrated solar but Greene suggests that it is challenges relating to the grid and storage that will become the biggest issue by 2020 and will represent the heavy engineering challenges. She also adds that with huge numbers of people retiring from the energy sector this decade, at a time when major capital investments are happening, this represents another major skills challenge.

"It's a double whammy. So the sector faces a major skills shortage problem," she says. "There is also the increasing competition for STEM skills with other technology sectors. Frankly, the energy sector is going to struggle to get all the engineers it needs and progress in improving home-grown talent is patchy."

Who are the potential employers?

The sector breaks down into domestic solar, utility-scale solar (solar farms that feed into the grid) and commercial/industrial roofs, which dominate in Europe and it comprises big and small companies.

Direct jobs will come from companies dedicated to the solar supply chain such as PV system designers, suppliers and installers like Photon Energy, PV Systems and Solar Century, inverter manufacturers such as the major international company Sungrow (of which 30 per cent of its global workforce is made up of research and development engineers) as well as on-roof or on-ground installers and recycling companies.

Also look out for solar divisions of the main energy providers and consultancies specialising in renewable energy such as OST Energy and SgurrEnergy. There are also a large number of organisations that support the industry by providing generic components and services. Compared to other energy sectors, there are a number of less well-known companies undertaking interesting work so it is well worth spending some time researching potential employers online and specialist renewable job sites can also provide leads with this.

What are the best routes in?

Those operating in the sector say that electrical and mechanical engineering graduates will be in demand but there is also interest in people who have studied other disciplines such as engineering design and construction.

Employers also report an increasing number of potential candidates with master’s degrees in renewable energy and related subjects so specialised postgraduate degree study is worth investigating. Look out for graduate schemes with those companies specialising in renewables or general schemes and apprenticeships from major energy providers that could lead to a career in green energy eventually.

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