Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Green Job Series: Careers in Solar Power [Third Installment]

Once a site has been selected, civil engineers are responsible for the design of the solar power plant and related structures. When construction begins, workers are needed to build the actual plant. This installment of The Daily Leap's green job series describes some of the most common jobs in construction of solar power plants.

Occupations in Solar Power Plant Construction

For a concentrating solar power (CSP) plant, large mirrors are arranged to catch and focus sunlight for power generation, therefore storage tanks, pipes, and generators must be installed before the plant is connected to the electrical grid. Photovoltaic plants are less complex, requiring installation of arrays of photovoltaic panels before they are connected to transformers and the grid.

Job Duties

Construction managers oversee the construction of solar power plants, from site selection to the final construction of the plant. They supervise a team of diverse occupations, including engineers, scientists, construction workers, and heavy-equipment operators. The construction manager's time is split between working at the construction site and an office, which may be located onsite or offsite.

Civil engineers design and supervise the construction of power plants. Engineers ensure that the land is graded properly and is flat enough to support large arrays of mirrors or photovoltaic panels. Civil engineers are also responsible for designing necessary infrastructure, including roadways, support structures, foundations, and plumbing systems.

Construction laborers perform a wide range of construction-related tasks. Most construction laborers specialize in one component of construction, such as metalworking, concrete pouring and setting, assembly, or demolition. Laborers prepare the site for construction by removing trees and debris. They are also responsible for monitoring and repairing compressors, pumps, and generators, and for erecting scaffolding and other support structures, as well as loading, unloading, identifying, and distributing building materials in accordance with project plans.

Construction equipment operators use machinery to move construction materials, earth, and other heavy materials at a construction site. They operate cranes to lift and place heavy objects, such as photovoltaic arrays, large mirrors, and turbine generators. They set up and inspect their equipment, make adjustments to the equipment, and perform some maintenance and minor repairs.

Welders who work in solar power plant construction are important for both CSP and photovoltaic plants. In CSP plants, the work of welders includes joining structural beams together when constructing buildings, installing the structures that support the mirrors, and joining pipes together. At photovoltaic plants, welders are instrumental in building the solar panel mounting systems.

Structural iron and steel workers use blueprints to place and install iron or steel girders, columns, and other structures to form the support structures for power plants. These workers also cut the structures to proper size, drill bolts for holes, and number them for onsite assembly by construction workers or solar photovoltaic installers. The structures are then shipped to worksites where they will be erected by structural iron and steel workers on a construction site.

Education and Training

In most construction occupations, workers are trained on the job. Laborers typically work under supervisors, who direct them to complete tasks. As laborers gain more experience and prove their abilities, they may move up to become supervisors. Equipment operators often learn on the job or complete a formal training program, or a combination be certified, which involves some training and testing to ensure competence and safety.

Construction managers are typically educated in construction management, business management, or engineering, and usually have experience working in construction. Experience is important for construction managers, so it may be substituted for some educational requirements. Workers with a degree in construction management or engineering, but without significant experience, may be hired as assistants to construction managers.

Civil engineers have at least a bachelor's degree in civil or structural engineering. Lead engineers on large projects, such as power plants, have specialized experience and typically have at least a master's degree. Licensure as a professional engineer (PE) may be required.

Welders usually learn their trade through on-the-job training or a formal apprenticeship program, or they may attend a formal training program at a trade school or community college. Structural steel and iron workers are typically trained on the job and may complete additional specialized training.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have wage data specific to the solar power industry. However, BLS does track the wage of occupations in the Utility System Construction industry group, which includes construction of solar power plants. The table shows BLS data for selected occupations in this industry group for May 2010. The wages shown are median annual wages for the United States as a whole; wages vary by employer and location.

Occupation Median annual wage
Construction managers $83,170
Civil engineers $74,620
Construction laborers $29,600
Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators $43,240
Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers $45,990
Structural iron and steel workers $44,890

For more detailed information on construction occupations in the solar power industry, follow the Occupational Outlook Handbook link.

Thursday's green job series installment: Occupations in Solar Power Plant Operations

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