Want a Career in Renewable Energy?

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive an inquiry from someone who wants to work in the small-scale RE industry.

This country is awash with folks who have been laid off by high tech businesses downsizing during the recent economic slump. Many RE users are so energized by their systems that they want to go into RE as a business. Everyone is looking for a secure job that’s good for themselves and good for the planet. A Very Short History of RE The small-scale RE industry, as we know it, was born in the early 1980s. The “back to the land” movement of the 1970s resulted in many homesteads that were, and still are, beyond the utility grids. Real estate prices really were the impetus for this fledgling industry. If you wanted a good deal on country property, it came without utility connections. This is still true today. Early homesteaders rapidly grew tired of the expense and hassle of running an engine generator every day. They were looking for something better, and the PV industry was glad to oblige. Before 1980, only NASA and suchlike could afford PVs. By the mid-1980s, the price of PVs had fallen to the point where they were affordable to common folks. Homesteaders quickly realized that solar electricity was cheaper and less hassle than running a generator. The early off-grid systems were far less sophisticated than those we have today. Most were DC-only systems, and those who were running inverters were operating modified square wave models. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that sine wave inverters became commonly available. Starting in the 1980s, individual states began passing net metering laws. This fostered a steady increase in PV and wind systems operating on the grid. I estimate that there are now more than 180,000 off-grid RE systems in the United States, and that number is growing by about 30 percent each year. While on-grid RE systems number far fewer at about 9,000 (not including guerrillas), this is growing very rapidly—the rate of growth over the last year has been more than 140 percent. With annual sales exceeding US$200 million, the small-scale RE industry has definitely arrived. Skills & Experience If you are considering a career in this industry, you need to examine your skills and experience. Are you familiar with RE systems and with the various technologies that they employ? It’s quite possible that you’re not, since the industry is still very new. You need to realistically evaluate your abilities, and seek the training and experience to bolster them. Your very first step, regardless of the position you see yourself holding in this industry, should be hands-on experience with RE. The first system you survey, design, and install should be your own. Doing your own system will give you firsthand experience in load analysis, site survey, system design, installation, and maintenance. It is only by actually living on RE that you can gain the knowledge and experience of what it can and can’t do. Without exception, every employer in this industry highly rates the direct experience of actually living on RE as a job qualification. Even if you are starting your own business, you need the experience of living on RE to effectively serve your customers—you must walk the talk. If your background is non-technical, consider seeking training in RE technologies, either on-line or in person. I can highly recommend these sources: SoL Energy (SoL) and Solar Energy International (SEI) both offer on-line courses on the Internet and hands-on training featuring actual installation of RE systems. Murdoch University in Australia offers both in-person and on-line courses, along with a variety of RE college degree options. San Juan College in New Mexico also offers inperson RE education, leading to a college degree. The Midwestern Renewable Energy Association (MREA) offers a variety of weekend and week-long workshops. See Access at the end of this article for contact information. Check Home Power’s Happenings section regularly for local workshops and other RE education opportunities. Other avenues for breaking into the field include interning or apprenticing with a professional, or taking classes in household electrical wiring at a community college. Even if your background is technical, you will probably need to come up to speed on the specifics of RE technology. I am reminded of the EE graduate from Cornell University I met who, while very bright and committed to RE, had never designed or built an electronic circuit, or even touched a soldering iron…. Where Do You Fit In? The small-scale RE industry is just like any industry—many types of jobs need to be done. Consider what you want to do as a career. Do you like working in the field with people? Do you want to run your own business, or be involved with a larger company? Do you primarily prefer intellectual work to hands-on work? Can you, or do you, want to run a screwdriver as your primary tool? Evaluate your career desires—this industry probably has a position for you. Here are just a few of the major jobs that need to be done. Installing Dealer The installing dealer is on the front lines of the RE industry. These folks offer their customers A-to-Z service—they do site surveys, load analysis, system design, and system installation, in addition to selling the equipment. Most installing dealers own and operate their own businesses. Many installing dealers are state certified electricians, electrical contractors, plumbers, or solar thermal contractors. Being an installing dealer is difficult, but very rewarding. There is no thrill like electrifying a homestead for a family. Installing dealers must know RE inside and out and have good tool skills. They also must know small business management and marketing. Since the installing dealer can order hardware as it is needed, the amount of startup capital required is small. Folks with a service orientation seem to do best, since customer relations are paramount for the installing dealer. Home Power’s InBiz database shows 463 installing dealers operating inside the United States. This is a miniscule number in comparison with the population and land area of the U.S. This industry could easily absorb thousands of installing dealers before the market becomes saturated—opportunities abound. Retailer Most retailers sell the RE hardware necessary to install a system, as well as ancillary gear, such as efficient appliances. Some offer design assistance, fewer still offer NEC compliant installation, and almost none offer load analysis and site survey. While all installing dealers are retailers, not all retailers are installing dealers. Most retailers market via catalog sales or Internet Web sites, while a few operate retail storefronts. The qualifications for being an RE retailer are a knowledge of RE systems and hardware, small businesses management and marketing, and a modest amount of startup capital. Home Power’s InBiz database lists 761 retailers. This number is growing rapidly as RE spreads on-grid. Wholesaler The wholesaler acts as an intermediate distribution step between the manufacturers and the dealers. The distributor needs to know which RE hardware works and how, and must maintain a large supply of that hardware to immediately fill orders from RE dealers. Extensive business skills and a warehouse with good access to all types of shipping services are required. Since the wholesaler must stock a big inventory, a large amount of startup capital is needed. In the early days of RE, a wholesale distributorship could be had pretty much for the asking. Those days are gone—this industry has already matured to the point where distributorships are difficult to obtain. The InBiz database shows 42 distributors inside the U.S., and this number is increasing slowly. OEM Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are the folks who make the RE hardware we all use. This field is populated by many different types of products—PVs, solar thermal collectors, wind generators, inverters, controls, batteries, instrumentation, and efficient appliances, just to name a few. Employment opportunities are present with existing OEMs. Most of these OEMs are larger companies and have many types of jobs other than just manufacturing—management, marketing, R&D, technical writing, and customer service. But doing the OEM job doesn’t necessarily mean joining an existing company. The field of small-scale RE is very fertile for entrepreneurs and inventors. Many of today’s most successful OEMs started out manufacturing in their garages—Trace Engineering is a good example of this. This field is still wide open to those with better products and new ideas. Many OEMs are small businesses, particularly when it comes to manufacturers of wind generators, micro-hydro turbines, controls, and instrumentation. Our InBiz database shows 270 manufacturers of RE products. This number is growing about 12 percent annually as new firms and products enter the field. Ancillary Jobs The RE industry holds many jobs not directly related to RE hardware sales and manufacture. This industry employs and needs marketing people, technical writers, designers, energy analysts, financial analysts, and educators. Home Power itself is a good example of an ancillary RE business—our product is information. SoL, SEI, and MREA are good examples of small organizations whose business is RE education. Successful Solar Businesses Home Power is dedicated to helping the small-scale RE industry grow and prosper. It’s good for the earth, it’s good for the folks who live on the earth, and it provides jobs with a future, where you can be proud of your work. There is no downside. One of the ways we foster the growth of this industry is by teaching a seminar called Successful Solar Businesses. This three-day seminar is oriented towards helping folks become installing dealers, retailers, distributors, and OEMs. This seminar concentrates not on RE technology, but on the business of RE. We are planning the next Successful Solar Businesses seminar in Ashland, Oregon, taught by Bob-O Schultze of Electron Connection, Bob Maynard of Energy Outfitters, and me from Home Power. The dates are February 21–23, 2003. Cost is US$350 for the three-day seminar. This includes three lunches and a Saturday night banquet. Lodging will be available at discounted rates for seminar participants. Seminar size is limited, so please contact me if you are interested. The reason Karen and I started this magazine in 1987 was to change the way that we make our energy. We wish you Godspeed with your renewable energy endeavors, and stand ready to aid you in any way we can. © 2002 Richard Perez Originally published in Home Power #89 – June / July 2002 Used with Permission.
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