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Qualified workers key to the success of the US solar power industry

Solar power installations are on the rise globally

4 minute read

Solar power installations are on the rise globally, driven by geopolitical uncertainty and energy security concerns, energy economics, policy support, electrification and the retirement of coal-fired power plants. The US is no exception.

Underpinned by the incentives of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to increase US renewables equipment manufacturing capacity and create domestic renewables jobs, North America is set to account for a larger share of global solar installations over the coming years ‒ as much as 15% in 2032.

The US solar industry grew 51% on the year in 2023, the nation’s largest year of solar installations by far. The surge was driven by the utility-scale sector, recovering from supply-chain constraints that had suppressed installations in 2022, and a healthy contribution from the residential sector, particularly in California. Solar accounted for 53% of all new electricity-generating capacity added to the US grid in 2023.

Solar installation is expected to remain robust in the medium term. Wood Mackenzie’s outlook for the US solar industry puts average annual growth at 7% between 2024 and 2028. Growth is much stronger in the near term, before falling to the low single-digits from 2026. Segments differ, but for utility-scale solar, despite healthy early-stage pipeline growth, project execution will become increasingly challenging as interconnection timelines lengthen, grid congestion worsens, and labor availability remains limited.

Solar is still the core technology of the US energy transition. Wood Mackenzie expects it to be the largest category of generating capacity on the US grid by 2050. But challenges to this industry’s growth are very real, requiring continued innovation to maximize the value that solar brings to an increasingly complex grid. A shortage of qualified labor is another hurdle; workforce growth has simply not kept pace with industry growth.

Two-thirds of all US solar jobs are at installation and project development firms, according to IREC’s National Solar Jobs Census. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts employment of solar photovoltaic installers to grow 22% between 2022 and 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations. About 3,500 openings for solar photovoltaic installers are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Who pays the price for a lack of training?

A well-trained solar installation workforce is not just key to meeting demand, it’s crucial to the health and well-being of the solar industry itself and those leading field installation projects. Technical expertise and understanding are essential in this field, but in-depth training is lacking.

The US Department of Energy puts it like this: “Deploying safe, reliable solar energy systems requires a skilled workforce that is properly trained to design and install these technologies. Additionally, maintaining these systems across decades of expected operation requires experienced technicians who can identify and address any safety or performance issues.”

Solar developers, engineering, procurement, and construction contractors (EPCs), and operations and maintenance (O&M) professionals stand to lose significantly if they use unskilled installers.

For profitability and public perception, it’s essential for site developers, EPCs and O&M partners to ensure their investments perform. Better-trained installation teams get sites up and running more swiftly and allow for enduring energy generation without downtime. They also ensure that end users, who need consistent power, are less at risk of outages from faulty systems. Moreover, improper training puts installers at risk of poor professional reputation, loss of work, or even injury or death.

Proper training and certification ensure installers have crucial knowledge about complex electrical systems, massive component configurations, and an understanding of safety regulations. Poorly performed solar installation potentially includes inefficient work processes, loss of precious time and financial resources, and even damage to solar assets or worker injury. When done right, solar installation means renewable energy generated safely and reliably.

The need for external training providers

To overcome the labor shortage, many firms are turning to external providers such as Array Technologies to provide training to prospective workers. Array runs a dedicated field services and customer training, offering both classroom and hands-on learning opportunities in commissioning and installation, as well as operation and maintenance best practices.

Solar installers can work more coherently when they understand how the utility-scale solar process flows. Sites that avoid stalled and delayed progress due to repeat work or repairs become profitable and sustainable more quickly.

Installers who go through Array’s programs can earn up to eight credits toward certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). A highly respected organization in renewable energy, NABCEP offers certification that boosts industry knowledge, validates technical skills and increases earning potential for installers. 

With both remote and in-person training options, installers can engage with Array’s programs in a way that works best for them. This flexibility enables the workforce to access these resources from different locations and enhance multiple levels of technical expertise.

“While many installers have traditionally learned on the job, Array’s Field Services and Customer Training programs are one way to learn essential skills and regulations in practice settings,” Array says. “This hands-on training allows a real-world understanding of processes and safety regulations before any real-world investment dollars or human welfare is at stake.”

To learn more about Array Academy, click here.