What Does a Solar Thermal Engineer Do?

Jan Fletcher

A solar thermal engineer develops or manages the generation of electricity through solar thermal power. Sometimes an individual in this field will work at a utility-scale level, building or managing projects that produce large quantities of electricity for commercial users. The solar thermal engineer may act in a project-manager role with other engineers and solar thermal component manufacturers. He or she may do site planning, or system energy modeling. Someone in this position will likely handle other responsibilities that commonly occur in a large engineering project, such as risk management or compliance with government regulations.

Solar panels are designed to use solar thermal energy.
Solar panels are designed to use solar thermal energy.

These engineers are usually responsible for managing some or all aspects of the transfer of heat into electrical current. In solar thermal power generation, the heat from radiant energy in sunlight is captured through collectors, which are often tubes filled with water heated by sunlight. A solar thermal engineer is typically responsible for managing the design, construction and maintenance of the collectors. Conduits that transfer the heat collected must also be engineered to be compatible with the overall power generation system. A subcontractor may be responsible for the selection of material, such as the type of composite, metal or plastic that will be used, but the solar thermal engineer will likely be included in that decision.

The role of solar thermal engineer project manager often includes design and construction.
The role of solar thermal engineer project manager often includes design and construction.

The role of solar thermal engineer project manager often includes supervising aspects of facilities operations in addition to design and construction. Ensuring that all aspects of the solar thermal project done by sub-contractors meet required specifications is yet another facet of solar thermal engineering. Typically, any large-scale power generation facility, including solar thermal facilities, will be subject to government regulations and utility oversight. This is done to ensure public safety and consistency in power delivery to the customers of the utility. The solar thermal engineer is usually responsible for compliance with these regulations and any reporting responsibilities that regulatory bodies may require.

A solar thermal engineer may do site planning. If he or she is constructing a solar thermal power supply for a large commercial complex or building, then assessing site characteristics will likely include performing energy modeling. The engineer will usually try to determine the best use of the site, and the optimal positioning of the thermal collectors, to ensure maximum energy is collected. He or she may also report on the suitability of the site to funders of the project.

Not all projects done by solar thermal engineers are on a commercial scale. Those who work on the residential side of the business may perform similar duties, albeit on a smaller scale. The solar thermal generation on the residential side will usually be a far less complex system, although some similar regulations regarding compliance and safety will still apply.

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