Thursday, August 23, 2012

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

Workers at solar power plants install, operate, and maintain equipment. They also monitor the production process and correct any problems that arise during normal operation. This installment of The Daily Leap's green job series describes some of the most common jobs in operations of solar power plants.

Occupations in Solar Power Plant Operations

Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants require more workers than photovoltaic plants; photovoltaic plants can sometimes even be run remotely.

Job Duties

Power plant operators monitor power generation and distribution from control rooms at power plants. They monitor the solar arrays and generators and regulate output from the generators, and they monitor instruments to maintain voltage to regulate electricity flows from the plant. Power plant operators communicate with distribution centers to ensure that the proper amount of electricity is being generated based on demand. They also go on rounds through the plant to check that everything is operating correctly, keeping records of switching operations and loads on generators, lines, and transformers.

Some CSP plants have a secondary source of power generation, such as natural-gas powered turbines, that will generate power at night or when the weather doesn't allow for sufficient solar power generation. Power plant operators are responsible for monitoring this equipment and deciding when to switch from solar generation to the secondary source.

Pump operators tend, control, and operate pump and manifold systems that transfer oil, water, and other materials throughout the CSP plant. Pump operators also maintain the equipment and regulate the flow of materials according to a schedule set up by the plant engineers or production supervisors.

Electricians are responsible for installing and maintaining the electrical equipment and wiring that connects the plant to the electrical grid. Electricians in power plants work with heavy equipment, including generators, inverters, and transformers.

Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install, maintain, and repair pipe systems. The workers monitor, regulate, and control flow through the pipes using automatic controls.

Electrical and electronics installers and repairers use electronic power equipment to operate and control generating plants, substations, and monitoring equipment. They install, maintain, and repair these complex systems.

Electrical engineers are responsible for controlling electrical generation and monitoring transmission devices used by electric utilities in power plants.

Education and Training

Power plant workers generally need a combination of education, on-the-job training, and experience. Strong mechanical, technical, and computer skills are needed to operate a power plant. Certification by the North American Energy Reliability Corporation (NERC) is necessary for positions that could affect the power grid. Companies also require a strong math and science background for workers seeking highly technical jobs. Knowledge of these subjects can be obtained through specialized training courses.

Electricians and pipefitters and steamfitters must be trained on the specific systems on which they work. They attend specialized training programs and undergo extensive on-the-job training.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have wage data specific to the solar power industry. However, BLS does have wage data for occupations in the Electric Power Generation, Transmission and Distribution industry group, which includes the distribution of electricity generated by 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
Power plant operators $64,270
Pump operators, except wellhead pumpers $58,740
Electricians $59,020
Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters $66,080
Electrical and electronics repairers, powerhouse, substation, and relay $66,230

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

Next week's green job series installment: Occupations in Solar Power Installation

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