All this week a gathering of the world’s leading solar companies is taking place right here in Orlando. Bill Clinton has even made an appearance. I stopped in on Tuesday to do some networking and was totally blown away by the experience. I have a stack of business cards as thick as Kevlar. Who knew business moguls in suits actually cared about the environment!
Now this is an international convention so it’s a great cross-section of who is leading the global race toward energy independence from fossil fuels. And the winner is Asia. (Germany is a close second.) As soon as you enter the conference floor you’re greeted by two very attractive Chinese women who don’t speak English. If you try to explain to them that your journalist seeking to find out what people need to do to break into the solar industry they will only ascertain that you’re looking for a job.
Almost immediately you will be meeting with an HR representative who speaks excellent English and would like to see your resume. It’s a good thing I brought mine. Indeed the jobs in the solar industry seem plentiful if you’re willing to relocate to China. This was the story of Tim Magner who I spoke to at the Chint Group booth. Here’s his story.
As you move around the convention floor it’s fascinating to encounter the names of megacompanies you never realized were involved with solar. Hyundai and Samsung are two giants I definitely wasn’t expecting to see at this rally.
It was amazing to see just how many kinds of companies can get involved with different stages of her new energy installation. Of course there were panel manufacturers, but there were also structural engineering firms creating brackets to support the solar panels, construction companies developing machinery to drill massive screws into foundations, inverter companies, cable companies, tool companies, finance companies, computer companies. All of them, and even the ones I can remember have a part to play in solar.
So who does that mean jobs for? Many of the US companies I talked with were based out of San Francisco. The second most popular state for solar companies was Massachusetts. I wonder how much Romney had to do with that? Please comment if you know. All these companies told me their growth was based largely on government incentives. The instability of political will regarding the solar industry is what is hampering their success.
Despite this, many companies told me they were hiring, even those in the US. Who were they hiring? Engineers mostly. Some chemical and some structural and some civil but mostly electrical engineers. After engineers these companies are mostly interested in finance majors and production managers. They want these backgrounds but they also want you to know a ton about the solar industry. You have to specialize, and then specialize again.
What was disappointing to me about this convention was not the fact that these companies aren’t looking for my major, or that China and Germany will likely reach each fossil fuel independence before the US, it was that many of these companies are selling the same product. Sure there is a little bit of innovation from one solar producer to the next, but I didn’t see a lot of people offering truly new ideas. There was however QBotix, a company that’s building robots to turn solar panels to reach maximum efficiency while saving the cost of individual motors for each panel.
This type of innovation is essential if solar power is really going to be embraced on a national scale. People want to buy solar products. They make financial sense, they’re reliable and they pay for themselves, but they have to be undeniable. They have to be packaged in a way, like the iPhone, where they become a must-have item. That will take some serious innovation, but at least it’s not rocket science.