3 engineering career pathways into the solar industry

by Feb 23, 2022

(Warning: this post gets a little techy!)

The transition to decarbonised energy systems is well underway globally, and new rooftop and utility solar is a big part of this change. Opportunities abound for talented solar energy professionals. These include working in technical advisory, working for asset owners, or for solar installation companies.

While many of the skills in demand include those that exist already in established disciplines, like civil and electrical engineering, the solar industry also has a need for certain unique applications of these skills.

Below are three skillsets that are in high demand or are unique in their application to the solar industry. Each represents an area of interest which undergraduates could focus on and each is a different possible career pathway.


Solar Energy Modelling

To reduce the costs of solar energy, savings must be made across the board. While this includes reduced equipment and installation costs, for solar projects to succeed it also must include reductions in financing costs.

This is where accurate and reliable solar energy modelling is vital to the process. Greater certainty in solar energy production estimates allows reductions in financing costs for project developers. Increased certainty can also allow project owners to proceed with a project where margins are slimmer but more certain.

Solar energy modelling is an evolving field that must consider solar resource availability, measurement uncertainty, solar design, and appropriate power conversion modelling. The ideal output is a statistics-based energy estimate with associated uncertainties.

The skills required for solar energy modelling include a detailed understanding of the physics of solar power, a working knowledge of statistics and uncertainty propagation, and proficiency with industry standard solar modelling packages. The most commonly used program is PVsyst, so if you only learn one modelling program, it’s a good idea to become familiar this one. Although many others do exist, like Homer, SolarPro, SAM and SolarFarmer.

If you are interested in the physics of solar, and have a mind for statistics, then career opportunities exist for talented solar modellers in solar retail, construction, and consultancy.


Solar Power Systems Modelling

As power systems around the world move from centralised synchronous generators to distributed renewable generators (like solar inverters) there are unique challenges for grid operators. This is because wind and solar generators don’t behave in the same way electrically as traditional coal and gas generators.

When applying to connect a generator to an electricity network, solar projects must meet the relevant grid codes. These requirements become more onerous the larger the generator being connected.  

For small household and commercial solar systems, detailed network studies aren’t usually required, so there aren’t too many power system modelling roles with small solar installation companies. However, once projects reach the MW scale, then an assessment of their impact on the grid will need to be modelled before the project is approved. So, there is a big need for these skills on larger projects.

MW scale solar projects will usually need electrical engineering professionals to model the project’s electrical characteristics. These will usually be submitted prior to project approval, then updated and validated once detailed design is completed. In addition to steady state electrical models, electromagnetic transient models are increasingly required to model power electronic systems found in large wind and solar projects.

Due to the very large numbers of MW scale wind and solar projects being planned in networks around the world, skills in power systems modelling are likely to remain in high demand. In addition to fundamental electrical engineering, these skills include familiarity with local grid codes and proficiency with modelling packages like PSSE, PowerFactory, and PSCAD.

Graduates with power systems modelling skills are in very high demand, and are likely to see opportunities in consultancy, with equipment manufacturers, for network operators, or for engineering and construction companies. If you are interested in the modelling of electrical power systems, then this may be a career path for you.


Solar Structural Assessments

Solar panels are by design exposed to the elements, and properly assessing wind loads on solar structures is key to their survivability. The most basic level of assessment involves understanding the highest wind speed which is statistically likely to occur at the site during the project design life.

For rooftop solar this is generally dealt with through local building codes and standards. Although solar mounting structures still need to be certified as compliant with these requirements. For large scale solar projects, engineers are needed to assess structural reliability considering wind loads and ground conditions on purpose designed structures.

Solar structural assessments may be a career pathway that suits civil, mechanical or aeronautical engineering backgrounds. An understanding of fluid mechanics will also be required as well as finite element modelling skills. 

If you are interested in structural engineering and aerodynamics, then solar structural engineering might be for you. Career pathways include working in design consultancy, for equipment manufacturers, and in wind tunnel testing.


Featured image courtesy of Pexels

Oliver Coleman

Oliver Coleman

Oliver has spent the last 10 years in the power and industry in various engineering roles including seven years in design, operations, and technical advisory for wind and solar projects. He is passionate about new technologies and the transition to a green energy future. His hope is that he can provide some insight into possible career paths in the solar industry for engineering students of different disciplines.