Become a Solar Energy Engineer: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become a solar energy engineer. Research the education and training requirements, and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in solar energy engineering.

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Should I Become a Solar Energy Engineer?

Solar energy engineers, also known as alternative energy engineers, photovoltaic (PV) design engineers, or solar array engineers, are experts in utilizing sunlight to generate electricity. In the solar energy industry, these individuals work in the manufacturing, construction, and maintenance of solar power materials and solar power plants. Various types of engineers including chemical, computer software, electrical, mechanical, and industrial work in various facets of this industry. These workers will likely spend most of their time working a regular schedule in an office, but on occasion, some overtime and field work might be required in this profession.

It is important to note that the salary information available below is for electrical engineers only. As mentioned before, given the current trajectory of energy acquisition, engineers of all backgrounds have utilized their skills towards finding employment in the solar industry. However, different types of engineers have different salaries, as demarcated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Therefore, it is important that prospective students weigh all options when choosing an educational path, since multiple options are available.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree required, master's degree preferred
Degree Field(s) Electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, chemical engineering, computer software engineering
Licensure A Professional Engineer (PE) license is required for engineers who offer professional services to the public
Experience 3-5 years of experience, depending on employer
Key Skills In-depth knowledge of Crompton Greaves Power Solutions (CGPSOL) policies, use of power conversion station equipment, experience in high voltage substation projects, knowledge about structural energy, thermodynamics, and photovoltaic (PV) cells, proficiency with AutoCAD, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, spreadsheet, word processing, and project management software, use of spectrometers, colorimeters, aging ovens, and semiconductor process systems, ability to provide engineering specifications and mechanical and electrical drawings, extensive knowledge of industry standards, troubleshooting skills, ability to conduct field testing
Salary (2014) $91,410 (median salary for all electrical engineers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics - Occupational Employment Statistics

Step 1: Excel in High School

High school students should plan ahead for their college educations. Students should be dedicated to being proficient in science, computer, and math classes. Some of these classes include chemistry, biological and life sciences, computer science, CAD programs, and mechanical drawing.

Success Tip:

  • Look for ABET-accredited college programs. The organization's accrediting standards ensure that an accredited school meets the standards to graduate students prepared to enter the professional workforce. Additionally, the certification tests for licensed professional engineers (PEs) typically are only available to students who graduated from ABET-accredited schools.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Solar energy engineers are required to hold at least a bachelor's degree, typically in mechanical or electrical engineering. Other areas of studies in which aspiring solar energy engineers can specialize include chemistry, computer science, civil engineering, and related fields, with concentrations in solar energy. Courses for these programs could include energy policy, solar energy and photovoltaics, and geothermal energy.

Success Tip:

  • Complete an internship. Many colleges and universities offer internship opportunities related to solar energy engineering. Students can inquire about these opportunities through their career services counselors, academic advisers, or professors. Additionally, solar energy firms and professional organizations, such as the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), offer internship programs.

Step 3: Gain Professional Experience

Students can look for solar energy engineering jobs through school counselors, internship supervisors, and professional organizations which are dedicated to renewable energy engineering. Examples of professional organizations include the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), and the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA).

Success Tips:

  • Attend conferences. Individuals can learn about the latest issues and technology in the industry by attending industry-related conferences. The U.S. Solar Market Insight Conference, hosted by SEIA and Greentech Media, is an example. SEIA also provides educational seminars, webinars, and networking events.
  • Join a professional organization. Organizations offer benefits such as networking opportunities and career training information. Many professional solar energy organizations also publish journals or magazines that can provide solar energy engineers with recent updates on the latest news, products, and policy changes. For example, ASES provides its members with the Solar Today Magazine. SEPA also has an extensive amount of resources available in its digital library.

Step 4: Obtain a Master's Degree

While not always necessary, some employers prefer candidates with graduate-level education. A master's degree in solar energy engineering usually takes one year to complete. Some of the graduate courses students could take include solar energy and public policy, evaluation of photovoltaic and fuel cell systems, and solar systems engineering.

Step 5: Acquire State Licensure

State licensure as a Professional Engineer (PE) is required for engineers who provide services to the public. These professionals also could work in various capacities such as certified energy manager (CEM), or certified PV installer. To become licensed, students generally need a combination of education and experience, as well as passing scores on two examinations. Students should check with their states for specific certification and licensing requirements.

Success Tips:

  • Acquire professional advice. Solar energy engineers who are new to the field can acquire practical knowledge and information about certification exams from employers, colleagues, former professors, and professional organizations.
  • Obtain certification information. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) administers the PE exams. Its website has information about exam schedules, scoring, and policies. The site also has a list of all the state licensing boards in the country, as well as their contact information and certification details.

Step 6: Take Continuing Education Classes

The renewable energy industry is continually developing and changing, which means professionals need to stay up-to-date on the latest technologies, policies, and trends. Many schools offer post-graduate certificate programs that provide information in these areas. Courses in these programs could include sustainable construction, energy policy, energy conversion systems, and advanced thermodynamics. Professional organizations also offer information on continuing education courses in solar energy engineering.

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