Record High Solar Production: Record Low Skilled Labour

Photo: istockphotos

In the space of just a few years, solar energy has gone from a curiosity to a global cause as government incentives, climate change, and grassroots activism have all helped drive greater demand for photovoltaic manufacturing and solar installation.  According to Greg Sheppard, Chief Research Office at market research firm, iSupply, "Solar panel makers now are running their factories at 90% of capacity, straining their capability to meet demand." 

However, many believe that future demand could be threatened much sooner if certain countries continue facing severe labour shortages at various stages of the solar value chain.  In Canada, for example, a recent report by CanSIA indicates that the country's solar industry faces a worrying dearth of qualified experts to help meet tomorrow's demand.  According to the 2009 CanSIA study, more than half of the solar companies surveyed expect labour shortages by 2012, with PV installation topping the list of critical skills in short supply.

To understand how a shortage like Canada's could spell doom for the industry, consider the current state of affairs - already, the global solar energy market is a $39 billion industry, with some forecasts pegging the industry at $77 billion by 2015.  With current trends, global solar installations could top 13.6 gigawatts (GW) by the end of this year - nearly double what it was in 2009 (7.3 GW)

However, such scenarios are only likely to play out if qualified installers and technicians exist to make the above materialize.  With billions in private equity floating around and manufacturing capacity approaching 100%, it is obvious that investors and producers remain optimistic about the industry's growth.  But will this demand continue in the absence of certified experts who can actually "install" the technology on a massive scale? 

This remains to be seen.  However, the rise of solar training courses and electrical safety schools suggests a concerted and deliberate effort to boost capacity at the tail end of the solar value chain.  In Canada, for example, Ontario Solar Academy has introduced a suite of training courses using codes and guidelines specific to the province - a move that clearly signals growing awareness of Canada's impending labour bottleneck.  According to David Gower, Associate Director of Solar Academy, "the demand is there.  The technology is there.  Our goal is to ensure that the skill is there as well."

As the world continues to watch developments unfold in Canada, Germany, and the handful of other solar hotspots, the solution to the industry's potential labour bottlenecks could actually come from the unlikeliest of sources.  Perhaps a blessing of sorts, the current economic crisis has prompted (in some cases, forced) many to rethink their career paths.  Unemployment is rarely a welcomed phenomenon, but at a time when entire countries are facing industry-wide labour shortages, perhaps the labour-unemployment disequilibrium will be short-lived as more people join the solar movement.

Austin Brentley is a born and bred Washingtonian who has spent the last 9 years traveling the globe, living in New York, Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, France, and most recently, Malaysia.  Passionate about all things green, Austin currently works with the Ontario Solar Academy, writing news stories and blogs about North America's growing solar revolution.  Feel free to drop him a line if you have questions about photovoltaic technology or solar panel installation training.