The solar power industry is beginning to have its own moment in the sun.
Working in areas that were once farfetched ideas –– that you could power your home with rays from the sun, or that water and wind turbines could generate electricity –– is now becoming a large part of the nation’s economy. Over the last several years, the solar industry has been experiencing a job boom that’s only expected to continue to grow –– and at a much faster pace than most other fields, as well as the national workforce as a whole.
Employment in the solar industry specifically has grown by more than 120 percent since 2010, according to annual data compiled by The Solar Foundation. The tens of thousands of jobs added in the solar industry each year also encompass a range of different purposes fit for individuals with varying levels of education, skills, and experience. And even the lowest-paying solar jobs in assembly and installation tend to pay more than the median wage for all occupations in the nation.
Michael Zarate –– who now works as an installer for SunRun, a solar company based on Colorado –– got his start in the industry through Solar Ready Vets, a collaboration between the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense that gives military veterans hands-on training and education. Zarate spent six weeks learning the trade last year at Tidewater Community College in Virginia, shortly after leaving the Navy.
Learning the trade of renewable energy was a completely new path for Zarate, who says he worked with weapons while in the military. Because he enlisted immediately after high school and had only taken a handful of college courses while on active duty, Zarate says the solar training program seemed like an interesting path, and a way to eventually advance his career.
“There was so much information during the training,” Zarate says. “We learned about the history of solar energy, all the way to the development of solar modules … anything that you can think of related to solar energy.”
And once he got his foot in the door of the solar industry, Zarate says he was amazed by the number of people looking to install solar panels on their homes, as well as solar array fields in the surrounding area.
“I definitely believe the country is moving that way, toward renewable energy, and I think that’s a good thing,” he says.
But why is renewable energy just now seeing such an explosive growth?
For one, the cost of installing things like solar photovoltaic systems –– the solar panels that many homeowners are placing on their roofs –– has come down dramatically over the last decade, according to Billy Connelly, communications manager for The Solar Foundation. But external factors have also influenced the shift, as society becomes more welcoming to the idea of moving to renewable energy sources.