Powering Your Career: 2017 Utilities Industry Job Outlook
The coming year will see a marked increase in utilities jobs with a slant toward emerging solar technologies and grid modernization. The utilities job outlook projects growth in positions ranging from solar operations engineers to grid risk assessors to installers, but they all have something in common: specialization in tech or renewable energy.
Upgrading Grid Infrastructure
The U.S. electrical grid hasn't changed much since its early 20th-century design. The grid goes through perpetual modification, but not at nearly the speed of technologies in the IT and communications sectors. However, wide-scale modernization, as well as marked improvement in the utilities job outlook, have already begun.
On January 6, 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy released the second installment of the quadrennial energy review, or QER 1.2, which recognizes that changes in the power industry have necessitated a considerable workforce increase to fill the skills gap that will arise from the deployment and management of smart grid technologies. The QER 1.2 highlights the need for a hiring surge to upgrade the grid's aging infrastructure, minimize its physical and cybersecurity vulnerabilities, and, in many regions, to implement the widespread adoption of distributed energy resources, such as power storage and renewable technologies, to move grid modernization forward.
Electricity utilities workers expecting to see abundant job growth in 2017 and beyond (the QER 1.2 projected hiring trends up to 2040) include those that perform risk assessment, have backgrounds in behavioral science, and those who can "comprehend, design, and manage cyber-physical systems." This builds on the projections made in the previous QER, which stated that by 2030, the energy sector—including the transmission, storage, and distribution (TS&D) segment—will add 1.5 million more openings, as well as an additional 200,000 utilities jobs requiring a background in computers and mathematics.
The U.S. has more than one million residential solar installations as of January 2017, giving the country a total installed capacity of 35.8 GW—enough energy to power 6.5 million homes.
Demand for solar energy is all but guaranteed to continue increasing because of the fact that the price for photovoltaic (PV) modules drops as the volume rises (called Swanson’s law). When you combine Swanson's law and 2016's record-breaking growth with the utilities sector's objective to integrate solar energy production with "behind-the-meter" systems—in which the power generated by on-site residential and commercial PV modules is fed to both the building and the electricity system to cultivate a "shared economy" and stabilize the power grid—utility jobs across the board will benefit.
With 900,000 solar installations forecast to occur between now and 2018, you can anticipate high demand for workers who specialize in renewable-energy research, architecture, installation, and post-installation. In fact, the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2015 showed that the industry is adding workers 12 times faster than the national average and boasts a growth rate of 20.2% since November 2014.
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Utilities workers involved in solar research focus on exploring new technologies and materials to produce electricity, as well as new applications for solar energy. According to a 2016 report by the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index, the U.S. Patent Office awarded 916 clean-energy patents in the third quarter of 2015, with solar power leading all technology sectors for the tenth consecutive quarter.
Corporate headhunters, at the behest of developers with a glut of clients in the market for solar-ready residential and commercial spaces, vigorously seek Solar Operations Engineers, or architects with the skill sets to integrate solar power into building design. Professionals performing a utilities job search in 2017 will find a need for Solar Operations Engineers who specialize in utility-scale PV parks, or solar farms, going forward. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't include job-growth projections for Solar Operations Engineers, the Solar Energy Industries Association's Major Solar Projects List itemizes 4,000+ solar farms currently in development, all of which require the expertise of architects with solar-engineering specialization.
Installation and Post Installation
Emerging solar tech, such as PV paint and solar windows, has increased the need for utility workers at the Certified Construction Manager (CCM) level and below who specialize in solar installation and maintenance. Since the U.S. solar market hit an all-time high in 2016, the drive for adding solar to existing structures has increased, and 2017 will see a spike in utility work, including a record number of Solar and PV Installer-Roofers, Solar Radiant Heating Installers, and Solar Hot Water Installers positions for a job seekers working toward utility careers.
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