Tuesday, February 11, 2014——The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2013, which found record growth in the U.S. solar industry.
The 2013 Solar Jobs Census Report, based on more than 75,000 phone calls and emails to solar industry employers, determined that the solar industry grew at 10 times the national average last year, creating 24,000 new jobs. Survey respondents cited declining equipment costs as the primary driver behind the industry’s remarkable growth and were optimistic about creating new jobs in 2014. Since the start of the annual Census in 2010, U.S. solar industry employment has increased 53 percent and now employs more than 142,000 Americans.
- Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director of The Solar Foundation, explained that the National Solar Jobs Census was first conducted in 2010. The 2013 edition, which collected over 100,000 data points, was carried out with BW Research Partnership and the George Washington University Solar Institute.
- The Census defines a solar worker as someone who spends at least 50 percent of their professional time working on solar activities. In fact, 91 percent of those who responded reported that they participate in solar activities 100 percent of their time.
- The Census counted more than 142,000 solar workers across the country in 18,000 businesses.
- The Census completed an "oversample" in three states: California, Arizona, and Minnesota. California has one-third of all solar workers across the country and 30 percent of installed capacity; workers also earn more in California than in any other state. Arizona has the number one solar resource in the nation, but lost jobs last year; however, growth is expected next year. Minnesota has a small solar market—it is ranked 31st in the nation—but has a huge potential for growth because of a mandate to increase solar to 450 megawatts by the end of the decade (this would represent a 30-fold increase in installed capacity).
- The top four solar job states in the 2013 ranking are California, Arizona, New Jersey, and Massachusetts—which were also the top four in 2012. Twenty states more than doubled their solar growth and 7 states grew by 1,500 jobs or more. Only five states saw solar jobs contract, and two states remained stable.
- Drivers of growth in the solar power industry include the fall in component prices, increased awareness on behalf of consumers, and public policies that have helped accelerate the drop in prices and incent consumer adoption.
- According to Amit Ronen, Director of the George Washington University Solar Institute and Professor at GWU's Trachtenberg School of Public Policy, the cost of solar PV has declined 80 percent since 2008, and by an even more staggering 99 percent since 1996.
- He noted, however, that although solar capacity is growing fast thanks to this fall in prices, solar is still only half a percent of the U.S. electricity mix and demand.
- Overwhelmingly, people are installing solar to save money (51.4 percent of respondents). Indeed, 22.9 percent of respondents made the move into solar specifically because solar energy costs are now more competitive with utility costs. The third most cited reason for installing solar is to benefit the environment and mitigate climate change (8.6 percent).
- Ronen predicted that the solar industry's double digit growth rates will continue for at least the next decade. The United States is now the third largest solar market, behind Japan and China.
- He noted, however, that a possible drag on growth is the fact that public policies and incentives concerning solar are uncertain. At the federal level, the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is set to expire in 2016. Because it takes years to install large solar projects, the ITC will need to be renewed well ahead of 2016 for solar to be competitive.
- Other clouds on the horizon include the growing battles between utilities and distributed solar, the solar trade war with China, and the fact that solar power continues to compete on an uneven playing field with subsidized fossil fuels.
- Bob Powell, President of SunEdison North America, confirmed that public policy, such as the ITC, has had a huge, positive impact on the solar industry.
- Powell drew attention to three policies of particular importance to the industry. First, the ITC, which is set to fall from 30 percent to 10 percent in 2015. He would like to see "commence construction rules" that would allow companies to claim the credit with projects launched before 2015, and he would like some sort of ITC or PTC as an option beyond 2016. Second, he would like public authorities to heavily promote public-private partnerships. Third, SunEdison supports free trade and a reduction in import tariffs.
- Powell noted that state-level policy is also critical. Many of the policies that were enacted in the state of California have been very successful in promoting solar energy, for instance. SunEdison would like to see these policies adopted by other states.
- Jason Walsh, Senior Advisor for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said the DOE has invested $3.7 billion in solar photovoltaic research and development from 1975 to 2008, resulting in a net economic benefit of $15 billion due to module efficiency and reliability improvements.
- Thanks in large part to DOE research, solar panels cost about 1 percent of what they used to.
- In addition to providing funds for R&D, the DOE also provided loan guarantees to help large solar projects get off the ground. In many cases, the technology was there, but financing was an issue. Now, projects no longer require such government guarantees.
- The Department of Energy’s SunShot program was launched in February 2011 to make solar power cost effective with other sources of power by 2020, with a goal of $1 per watt by 2020. Three years into the 10-year initiative, solar industry already has achieved 60 percent of that goal, but the next 40 percent will be difficult because the industry must now address "soft costs" (such as financing, permitting, installation, maintenance…), which are not decreasing as quickly as equipment costs. Soft costs now represent up to 64 percent of the cost of solar installations in the United States (up from 50 percent).
- To address soft costs, the DOE launched the Rooftop Solar Challenge in 2011. It has funded about 30 teams across the country that are developing innovative ways to streamline the solar installation process. Thanks to their work, one week has been shaved off the time required for an average solar installation.
- According to Walsh, the bottom line is that if we continue to grow solar power across the nation, it can meet 14 percent of the country’s electricity demand.