Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Solar Energy - Our New Frontier

There is no denying that Solar Energy and Alternative Energy are going to be utilized to make our reliance on foreign oil diminish. Both Presidential candidates have articulated their desire to explore these avenues and I believe these arenas to have significant projected growth over the next 5-10 years. As such, our office is expanding its focus to include Solar Energy and Alternative Energy.

I have had the great pleasure of working with a solar manufacturer, as well as a biofuel/biomass manufacturer this year and have decided to shift focus desk focus to incorporate this growing business segment. The feedback I have received from a number of industry executives has indicated that substantial growth is on the horizon and a need exists for great individuals to help in this expansion. With this in mind, I wanted to share some job information with you, courtesy of www.greenjobs.com. This website is one of the most comprehensive websites I have found and I strongly encourage you to visit it.

Job Options in Solar

The Solar Electric Supply Chain

An understanding of the nature of the solar energy industry may help recognize the types opportunities that can become available.

At the core of the solar electric industry are the cell and module manufacturers – these are the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) of the industry. However other key manufacturers include those making everything else needed for a solar electric system – particularly inverters and controllers, normally referred to as balance of system (BOS) components. They are supplied by a plethora of other organizations, manufacturers of equipment, not only for production but everything needed for a manufacturing business; from fork lift trucks to paper clips
materials suppliers, including substrate (glass, plastic, steel etc.), chemicals, sealant etc. etc.
service suppliers: some OEMs have their own in-house accounting departments, while other contract it in. All use contract labor to some degree and examples include:
production line and assembly operators
office cleaning
legal support
and any other professional support which corporate management decides to outsource

This supply chain is an integral part of the solar industry and the jobs involved are dependent on its success. These and BOS manufacturers are normally classified as “indirect” jobs, as distinct from the “direct” jobs offered by the OEMs and their agents.

OEMs market their products in a variety of ways: basically they either sell direct to end customers or through distributors – many do both. In any particular geographical area, solar distributors may be the most visible face of the industry. They may stock solar electric modules from more than one manufacturer, install and maintain systems from a few to hundreds of kilowatts and work directly with consumers – whether commercial or residential, and they may also cover other renewable energy technologies in addition to solar electric. Many are very small businesses but increasingly the best are becoming significant as the industry expands. However, even the larger companies employ relatively few people since they have no real manufacturing capacity. However they do employ engineers and generalists in the design, assembly, installation and maintenance of systems.

The solar electric manufacturers form a very mixed group. The biggest are already mid-sized companies, with revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, employing several hundred people, sometimes in many different countries. Others may have much lower sales but be more active in research and development. You can get an idea of the range of companies on the Solarbuzz website (http://www.solarbuzz.com/Cellmanufacturers.htm).

Distributors and Integrators may also employ service, material and equipment suppliers, though on a much smaller scale than the OEMs and BOS manufacturers. For those of you wishing to make a career in the solar electric industry, the important thing to remember is that there are jobs in every sector leading up to the End Users, although their nature earning capacity may differ markedly.

Let’s look at the cell and Module Manufacturers to get some idea of the number and types of jobs available. The figure below is based on a hypothetical company manufacturing and selling about 20MW of product. The total number of employees is 100, of whom 60% are in manufacturing. As calibration, consider the recently opened Sharp 20MW production plant in Memphis directly employs 67 people. Of the remainder, 10% are in technology, essential to new product development in such an industry, and the rest almost evenly divided between corporate management and sales. The proportion shown in management may seem high – indeed for many companies it probably is. However, in this example we have included Human Resources, Information Technology, Accounting and Finance, Marketing, Planning and Logistics in addition to the CEO. If we accept this distribution as reasonable we can then examine what kind of employment opportunities may be on offer.

Let’s start from the top – the CEO of many solar electric companies have been technical entrepreneurs with extensive management experience, a lifetime’s technical knowledge and a vision of the products they wanted to make. In a fledgling high technology industry, this is to be expected. However, as the successful companies grow, the industry matures and demands on CEOs change, not least because of the expectations of the market and anxious shareholders. Replacements for the original CEO, whose real forte may have been technical innovation, are increasingly likely to be individuals whose forte is leadership and business innovation. Obviously, such posts are relatively few and only become available on an occasional basis. Moreover, even when a company is looking for a new CEO it may not advertise the fact and may employ recruitment services to identify suitable candidates. If it is the kind of opportunity you want to pursue, you have two choices: either start your own company or consistently build your profile and reputation by excelling in each of your appointments, develop your management and leadership qualities in a variety of positions and make no secret of your intent.

Marketing is something sometimes done by the CEO, but in anything but a very small company, it is usually someone else ‘s responsibility. Sometimes it is combined with Sales although this does not always make sense. For example, if a company becomes international, it is likely to make sense to have Sales organizations on a regional basis while Marketing may stay a Head Office function. This could be because the function of Marketing is not just to promote its products but also to raise the profile of the company, when it fits with company strategy, and this must be accomplished in a consistent manner worldwide. The Marketer will have had previous experience, perhaps in Sales in the industry or even in Marketing in another industry and will have convinced his employer that he has an understanding of the company strategy, the image it wants to present for itself and its products and the skills to develop and implement a plan which achieves this. The original qualifications of the Marketer are often less relevant than his experience and he may be a graduate from any discipline.

Planning is a strategic activity in which the CEO normally plays a major part. However, in any sizeable company, he normally has at least one professional whom he trusts to help him and take responsibility for the maintenance of the plan. The individual is likely to have previous industry experience and is increasingly likely to hold some type of business qualification.

Human Resources, Accounting and Finance, and Information Technology have at least two things in common – they are usually filled with professionals with special qualifications and, unlike the roles discussed above, they may be outsourced. However, every company in the industry has need of these services whether outsourced or not and opportunities will regularly present themselves to suitably qualified candidates.

Logistics has been broken out here simply to highlight it, although it may in practice be included in the manufacturing organization. Those responsible for it must have the skills to procure everything required and make sure everything is where it needs to be when it is required. In order to do it well, those responsible must have the qualities required to develop and maintain good relationships with suppliers, negotiate sound contract terms and have very good organizational skills. It is a specialist role, which can be key in optimizing the efficiency of the company’s operations, and is normally not outsourced.

In very large companies, Technology, or Research and Development, can become regarded as a corporate overhead to be minimized. However, in the infancy of high technology industries, it is critical in giving companies products with which they can differentiate themselves – whether in cost, reliability, performance or durability – ideally all four! All cell and module manufacturers have in-house technology organizations staffed with individuals possessing a variety of skill sets and qualifications. These organizations are likely to offer opportunities for technologists of almost every description, including materials scientists, engineers of many descriptions, chemists and physicists. The Technology organization is likely to be led by someone who has grown “through the ranks”, either in the same company or in other companies or even other industries, and possesses the organizational and leadership skills to make what is often a disparate group of specialists perform well together.

The Manufacturing organization is likely to be led by an engineer – probably a very skilled but pragmatic engineer, since the success of such an operation depends on minimizing downtime and overcoming the problems which are a constant part of everyday life – breakdowns, late deliveries and accidents included! Obviously, the larger the operation, the more senior and experienced the person responsible is likely to be and should a company be seeking to find a new Manufacturing manager, they are very likely to consider external recruitment unless the company is large enough to have a pool of candidates who have the demonstrated competence. Reporting to this individual will be a core of engineers responsible for the manufacturing plant. The precise nature of their expertise will depend on the type of product and manufacturing operation. There may even be an occasional physicist, especially if the process involves lasers, and chemist, for example in the Quality Control Laboratory. However their roles will be a long way from R&D and very focused on the maintenance of the manufacturing process. The actual production line is likely to be staffed with operators and/or assemblers who may be trained on the job. At least a proportion of these are likely to be contracted in to manage swings in production volume.

Sales is very different from the foregoing in at least these respects – it has an almost completely external focus, it involves daily contact with the external world – particularly customers and prospective customers, and is normally the sole source of the company’s commercial income*. It is perhaps the ultimate key to a company’s success – unless it sells products at a profit the company by definition will always be loss-making. The person leading the Sales organization may have almost any kind of academic qualifications (or none) but is likely to have demonstrated his competence in previous sales positions. This competence will include the ability to cultivate potential customers – convincing them of the company’s product offering (when the price, quality, warranty etc has probably been determined by others), satisfy existing customers by ensuring that promises are kept – products are delivered on time, installations are completed and work from the start, and problems are addressed promptly. In larger organizations, his competence will also include demonstrated ability to plan, lead and motivate a sales group. While the leader may have no technical qualifications there are likely to be some in the sales force – particularly, but not exclusively engineers, especially if the company sells into high technology industries such as Telecommunication companies. If such a relationship is to be successful and long-standing, it probably must be founded on a sound understanding at a technical level and the lead sales person is likely to be technically competent to explain the detailed attributed of his products – not just the modules but the systems they are incorporated into. Also, should the company integrate and sell systems, it will employ engineers to design and build them and installers to put them into operation. Installation may be contracted out or done by in-house staff. It is worth recognizing however that installers are needed throughout the industry, that most are trained on the job (although there is now a certification process in the USA) and it is probably one of the easiest ways to break into the solar electric industry


Anonymous said...

Your comment is awaiting moderation.

I’m curious, do you think it possible or logical for people in a non- sunny climate people and sunny climate people to team up in small groups to produce solar energy?

In other words, can you envision a scenario where a low income homeowner in Phoenix and an investor in Seattle could team up to produce an investment that would benefit both while using PV’s in Phoenix?

John Wabel

John Wabel said...

I’m curious, do you think it possible or logical for people in a non- sunny climate people and sunny climate people to team up in small groups to produce solar energy?

In other words, can you envision a scenario where a low income homeowner in Phoenix and an investor in Seattle could team up to produce an investment that would benefit both while using PV’s in Phoenix?

John Wabel