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Solar Energy Technicians Have a Sunny Future

If you've thought of taking up the trades of plumbing or electricity but have been turned off by thoughts of working with backed-up toilets or wiring the same old house the same old way, you might want to look into a career in the solar industry.

For a long time, the solar power industry has been looked at as a hobby or a basement business. But the increasing energy crisis is a real wake-up call: people have to start looking at different sources of energy.

"Solar energy just makes sense," says Greg Gahagan. He is the vice-president of a solar energy association. "We have tremendous amounts of abundant, predictable sources of energy that hit every rooftop in the state. And probably only two or three percent, if that, have solar on them."

Canada doesn't have the same foothold in solar power production and distribution as the U.S. But both countries are beginning to develop a stable, viable industry.

"I would say it's growing," says Karen Campbell. She is a distributor and fabricator of solar energy systems in California. "There's always been a lot of interest in it because it's a little bit more glamorous than plumbing pools and doing hot water systems."

Electrical and mechanical engineers, designers, distributors and the tradespeople who install solar energy systems -- especially plumbers and electricians -- are the main beneficiaries of the growing industry.

How so? Well, actually, it makes a lot of sense.

Solar power is gathered by large panels that absorb the sun's energy as the sun beats down on them. The energy in the rays can be used for heat (solar thermal energy) or converted to electricity (photovoltaic energy).

Solar energy technicians design and build energy systems. Depending on the application, this requires ability in welding, simple drafting, assembly, electrical wiring and plumbing.

Installers usually work a 40-hour week, and much of that time is spent outside. "You have to pick and choose your weather," says Frank Ilczyszyn. He runs an alternative energy business. "If it's nasty outside, then you do all your inside work. If it's sunny outside or acceptable weather, then you do all your work outside."

When you're finished installation, Ilczyszyn says, you "commission the system." That means you run through the whole works to ensure that everything is performing well. Then you talk to the homeowner and let him know what kind of system he's got, how to run it and what to look out for.

Water heating and pool heating are by far the largest part of the business right now, says Les Nelson. He is the executive director of a solar energy association. "[It's] probably 10 to one."

He says that all over the U.S., pool heating is the most profitable and largest volume business in the solar energy sector today. Photovoltaics, which he says everyone is interested in right now, is still a very small part of the solar business.

Campbell has been in business for about 20 years and now produces the whole solar show -- engineering, design and installation. She employs about 14 installation technicians.

Part of what makes people in the U.S. view solar energy as an economically real alternative is government incentives -- rebates, tax incentives and subsidized start-up costs. Various levels of government have programs that enable consumers to hook into the renewables.

The issue of training is becoming more and more prominent. Most people working as solar energy technicians have some background in trade work. This includes experience in welding, plumbing and electricity.

"A lot of the growth is going to come from electrical contractors that decide to get involved in solar [energy]," Nelson says. "Plumbing is another area where a lot of people in the solar thermal side of things basically need to know the same skills that a plumber needs to know."

But just because you have a strong background in a particular trade doesn't mean that you'll be able to slide in and dominate the solar field. Nelson says the work is much different from the traditional applications of electrical and plumbing work.

"A lot of the electrical contractors would have no clue how to do it," Nelson says. "So you have to make a concerted effort to actually go out and learn the right way to do it."

Self-employed technicians have to know how to design and assemble the housing for solar panels. That means knowing about welding and basic drafting.

"Because I have a real knack for designing systems, I can put in the wiring as such, but I'm not an electrician," says Ilczyszyn. "I picked up all this stuff, you might say, second hand."

"The technology is tremendously complex and moving forward at a very fast rate," Yusishen says. "If you want to get serious in the business, you have to be in it full time. Get in there with both sleeves up, so to speak."


Solar Energy Basics
Learn more about the amazing potential of solar energy

Solar Energy Industries Association
The national trade association

Million Solar Roofs
Visit this site for info about one of the largest solar energy projects in the world

U.S. Department of Energy
Learn how solar cells work

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