What degree do I need to be a Solar Energy Engineer?

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The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) attests that solar energy is a booming business that has experienced 42% growth in the past decade. In 2008, the U.S. solar energy capacity was only 0.34 gigawatts (G.W.) of electricity. Currently, it is approximately 97.2 GW, which is sufficient energy to power eighteen million U.S. homes. From massive commercial buildings to residential houses, the installation of solar panels has flourished. Over 97.2 billion solar panels are in use globally as of 2021. The average U.S. home requires 20 panels to generate about 5 K.W. of power.

Every second the sun delivers enough energy to power the earth’s demands for 500,000 years.

The cost of solar energy, since 2010, has dropped by more than 70%. Furthermore, the efficiency has increased from 6% in 1954 to over 40% today. Therefore, solar power has become more affordable and more attractive for commercial and residential installations. Most panels have a 20-year warranty, but even the earlier installed panels from forty years ago are functioning at 80% or more efficiency.  Consequently, the SEIA reported that a solar energy system is installed every four minutes in the U.S.

California continues to have the highest concentration of solar energy workers, with 75,598 in 2015 and slightly fewer in 2020 (68,677-latest data from The Solar Foundation ). The number employed in this industry in 2015 was 208,859, which grew to 249,983 by 2019. Interestingly, in 2015, Massachusetts was second place with 15,095 workers, whereas, in 2020, Florida assumed second place with 11,219. As of 2020, New York exceeded Texas with 10,214 workers in the former and 10,088 solar energy employees in the latter.

Nationwide, 36.4% work in residential installation, followed by 15.9% in non-residential.

From 2019 to 2020, there was a decline in solar energy employment due primarily to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the solar industry installed record numbers as a consequence of labor productivity.

Solar energy harnesses the sun’s heat or radiation and makes it useable. Today, solar technology produces less than one-tenth of one percent of global energy demand. Unfortunately, in the United States, solar power accounts for a meager 1.6% of the total electricity generation today. The escalated demand is one of the answers to mitigate global warming as solar energy produces zero pollution and the source (the sun) is free.

The downside is that it doesn’t work at night, requiring a storage device such as a battery. Solar technologies are also costly and need an area of land to set the solar panels, but not as much as you’d imagine. Just 21.250 square miles of solar panels could meet America’s electrical needs, and that space is roughly half of the land leased for oil and gas production. Despite these drawbacks, solar energy has surged 20% over the past 15 years globally.

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Solar Energy Education

At college and universities, several degree names apply to this field of engineering. For example, Solar Energy Technology, Energy and Sustainable Policy, Sustainable Energy Management, renewable energy Engineering, Energy Systems, and Sustainable Energy Systems are associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and certificate programs.

Those who prefer to wade into the water and not jump into the deep end may consider an Associate of Applied Science degree in Solar Energy Technology. For example, Texas State Technical College (TSTC) has this degree that grants the skills and knowledge in solar panel installation, photovoltaic design, and maintenance for commercial and residential systems. Located in Waco, students can graduate in sixteen months at an estimated tuition cost of $12,780.

Students learn practical knowledge about residential wiring, installing energy-efficient doors and windows, energy rating systems, commercial wiring, and photovoltaic equipment.

Individuals might find an associate degree at a local community or technical college. For example, Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon is the state’s largest post-secondary learning institution with over 60,000 full and part-time students. The school has four primary campuses and dozens of independent centers, as well as distance learning capabilities.

PCC offers a two-year Associate of Applied Science in Electronic Engineering Technology concentration in Renewable Energy Systems. Students learn electronic theory and obtain practical skills from studying schematics, geothermal, biomass, fuel cells, photovoltaic, Ohm’s Law, transformers, HAZMAT, hydraulics, industrial robots, and voltage regulators. Again, none of the classes specify solar energy.

Graduates can seek employment with electronic equipment manufacturers, public utilities, colleges, medical labs, hospitals, and government agencies.

PennState World Campus offers a Bachelor of Arts in Energy Sustainable Policy that teaches sustainability management, policy, domestic energy, and energy security. Courses include:

  • Energy Conservation
  • Evolution of oil
  • Environment and Society
  • Global Warming
  • Global Information Systems (GIS)
  • Meteorology

The above program does not focus on solar energy; instead, it provides an overview of the energy industry from a sustainability perspective. Probably not the best degree for the future solar engineer. The school also has a Bachelor of Science in the same major with almost identical courses, except the Arts program requires twelve credits of a Foreign Language.

The Bachelor of Science in Renewable Energy at Everglades University in Florida is available on-campus and online. Students can complete the 123-credit degree in 41 months, depending on transfer credits. The Upper Division courses delve into topics on alternative energy sources. The curriculum includes Alternative Energy-Residential and Commercial, Solar Energy, Photovoltaics, Nuclear Energy, Geothermal, Hydroelectric Energy, Biomass, and Propane & Natural Gas.

Generally, to study solar power at the bachelor’s degree level, you need to research renewable energy within the engineering department. Solar engineers often have a degree in electrical or mechanical engineering with a solar energy concentration. Typical courses may include:

  • Energy Policy – state and federal laws and regulations
  • Photovoltaics – the conversion of light into electricity
  • Geothermal Energy – energy generated from below the earth’s crust
  • Solar Power Materials – composition and manufacture of panels
  • Computer Software – monitoring and metering of solar power

Oregon Institute of Technology has a Bachelor of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering at the Portland-Metro and Klamath Falls campuses. Since 2005, Oregon Tech’s renewable energy graduates have landed jobs in clean energy areas like solar power. Their campus is a testament to renewable energy as the school has installed 7,800 solar panels at the Metro campus.

The Tech program begins with a foundation (two years) in mathematics (calculus), statistics, chemistry, and physics before launching into wind power, photovoltaics, and solar thermal energy systems. Students tackle thermodynamics, solid-state electronics, engineering mechanics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer, and photovoltaic systems during their junior year. The senior year studies power electronics, thermal energy, fuel cells, and a capstone project.

While not mandatory, some employers prefer candidates with graduate education, which, Oregon Tech also furnishes a Master of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering (MSREE). Individuals who know when registering for a bachelor’s degree may opt for the accelerated BSREE/MSREE, which you could complete the combo within five years. The program features electrical power systems, energy-efficient buildings, hydroelectric power, global energy issues, and photovoltaic systems.

As mentioned above, an electrical engineering degree might be a possibility. However, these degrees focus on electronic components, control systems, electromagnetic energy, computer science, mathematics, physics, circuits, and microprocessor systems. Courses in solar energy will be scarce or non-existent.

A Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering would grant more expertise you can use in solar energy than electrical engineering. For example, the B.S. at Kennesaw State University’s Department of Engineering teaches:

  • Electronic Circuits
  • Engineering Mechanics
  • Fluid Mechanics
  • Heat Transfer Lab
  • Thermodynamics
  • Materials Strength
  • Machine Dynamics & Vibrations
  • Manufacturing Engineering

Plus, there is an extensive list of technical electives from which to choose aerodynamics, nuclear power, avionics, renewable energy, aircraft design, and propulsion.

Does electrical or mechanical engineering apply to generating solar power? To answer the question, you need to understand how solar energy works. There are two types:

Photovoltaic (PV):  Solar panels absorb sunlight, also known as solar radiation or electromagnetic radiation, by the PV cells in each panel. The resulting electrical charges are in response to an internal electric field within the cells. At the atomic level, each panel contains a myriad of atoms. The photons from the sunlight release the electrons from atoms, creating an electrical flow of direct current (DC). DC cannot power your home, so a piece of equipment called an inverter converts the DC to alternating current (AC).

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP):  This sunlight to heat transformation is principally used in utility-sized installations. The U.S. Department of Energy supports research into the development of CSP technologies. The continued R&D has allowed the cost of electricity generated by CSP to drop 50%.

Master’s Degree Anyone?

Those who want or feel they must have a master’s degree have offerings to check into further. UMass Lowell (UML) has a Master’s degree in Energy Engineering in two specialties:

Renewable (Solar) Engineering and Nuclear Engineering – the former presented by the Department of Mechanical Engineering is the logical choice for a career in solar energy. UML offers three 30-credit avenues to earn an M.S. in Energy Engineering:

Thesis:  24 credits of courses and 6 for the thesis

Project: 27 credits of courses and three devoted to your project

Course-only: All 30 credits are courses

The renewable option requires one advanced mathematics class and three electives chosen from a list of five: Solar Energy Systems and Fundamentals of Solar Utilization are two of them.

Employment in Solar Energy

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not have a category for solar engineers; however, they do have employment numbers for Solar Photovoltaic Installers. This occupation has a median income of $46,470 and a projected job growth of  52% from 2020 to 2030. The salary is based on a high school diploma and on-the-job training. As expected, California employs the most with 4,780, followed by New Jersey with 1,370.

According to the BLS, mechanical engineers with an undergraduate degree earn an average of $90,160 –a bachelor’s degree in this field is one of the educational qualifications to work as a solar energy engineer. As of 2020, there were 299,200 employees in this profession. Michigan leads the way in this occupation with 40,340, and in second place with 28,130 mechanical engineers sits California.

For comparison, according to the BLS, Electrical and Electronics Engineers have a median wage of $103,390 with 313,200 employees. Job growth is expected to be 7% or a change in 20,400 jobs through 2030.

The statistics indicate that a bachelor’s degree or high school diploma is adequate to seek work in solar power. Do job postings on employment sites like Indeed, SimplyHired, Glassdoor, and ZipRecruiter concur? Here are some randomly selected advertised employment opportunities and the specified education preference:

  • Project Engineer – Solar: Bachelor degree or a minimum of eight years of experience
  • Solar Electrical Field Engineer: Undergraduate degree in engineering, construction management, or renewable energy
  • Entry-Level Engineer (Solar Refrigeration): Bachelor’s in Electrical, Mechanical, or Computer Science
  • Applications Engineer-Structural Solar PV Systems: Bachelor’s in Mechanical, Structural or Civil Engineering
  • Solar Application Engineer: Bachelor’s in Electrical or Mechanical Engineering
  • Sales Engineer-Energy Storage Systems: Bachelor of Science in Mechanical or Electrical Engineering and knowledge of PV
  • Solar Performance Engineer: Bachelor’s degree (none specified)

Many of the positions requiring a bachelor’s degree reach the low six figures in salary. Most at this level stipulate at least five years of experience in the energy industry. It’s also evident from these employers that a degree in mechanical engineering is beneficial as it meets the educational preferences.

A company in the oil, gas, wind, and solar energy sector seeks a Principal Electrical Engineer Renewables. Applicants need ten years of experience and a bachelor’s or master’s degree in electrical engineering. This particular position is in the Offshore Wind industry, but it illustrates that some employers suggest a graduate degree. Although, appropriate work background will undoubtedly triumph over a master’s degree with limited energy experience.

At the opposite end of the education spectrum from a master’s degree is no college education. What employment opportunities are there for these people? Solar panel installers are in demand at wages varying from $15/hour to $30/hour with experience. A company in Florida advertised for a solar panel installer with a high school diploma, reliable transportation, and a valid driver’s license. The posted salary is up to $75,000 a year.

In addition to the SEIA mentioned above, the American Solar Energy Society is another resource for undergraduate and graduate students at an annual fee of only $35. Membership includes the printed and digital Solar Today magazine, access to webinars, and a 70% discount at the National Solar Conference.

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