The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and The Solar Foundation held a briefing on the 2014 National Solar Jobs Census. The Census found that the solar industry added 31,000 jobs last year, accounting for 1.3 percent of all new U.S. jobs, and representing a growth rate almost 20 times greater than the national average. Today, 173,807 Americans are employed in the solar industry, almost twice as many as in U.S. coal mining.
While Census respondents project that the solar industry will grow over 20 percent again next year, which would add about the same number of new domestic jobs as the much larger fossil fuel sector, speakers discussed how pending changes to federal and state policies may affect future growth.
The briefing also provided an overview of the changing demographic makeup of the solar industry. For example, veterans make up one in ten workers in the U.S. solar industry. The Energy Department representative discussed the recent announcement that the first class of Marines has graduated from their solar job training program, which prepares service members for jobs in the solar industry.
Now in its fifth year, the 2014 National Solar Jobs Census was conducted by The Solar Foundation and BW Research Partnership, with support from the George Washington University’s Solar Institute. The report drew on responses from 7,600 U.S. businesses in November 2014.
- Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director, The Solar Foundation (TSF), provided an overview of TSF’s 2014 National Solar Jobs Census, which covers solar jobs, trends, and wages. She highlighted the strong growth of the solar industry and projected continued industry growth for 2015 and well into the future.
- There are 174,000 workers employed in solar nationwide, and these employees work in all 50 states. A total of 31,000 jobs were created in 2014 alone (representing one out of every 78 new U.S. jobs), and 36,000 new jobs are expected in 2015.
- There are currently more jobs in solar than in coal mining [there are 80,396 coal workers according to the U.S. Department of Energy].
- The solar industry has experienced 21.8 percent growth since 2013 (substantially above the 1.1 percent growth rate of the U.S. economy as a whole), and 86 percent growth since 2010.
- Most solar jobs are in installation (55.8 percent), followed by manufacturing (18.7 percent) and sales and distribution (11.6 percent).
- The industry is becoming increasingly diverse, with minorities and veterans making up a significant portion of the solar workforce. Hispanics represent 16.3 percent of the solar workforce, and 9.7 percent are veterans.
- Well-paying solar jobs that cannot be outsourced are accessible to individuals without college degrees. The average salary for a solar installer is $24/hour, and it is $36/hour for a solar salesperson.
- California has by far the most solar jobs (54,680), followed by Massachusetts, Arizona, New York, and New Jersey.
- Nevada saw the strongest solar job growth rate in 2014 (146 percent), followed by Minnesota, Illinois, North Carolina, and Texas.
- Nevada also has the most solar jobs per capita, followed by Vermont, Hawaii, California, and Massachusetts.
- Detailed state solar jobs census reports are available for Arizona, California, Georgia, Maryland, New York, and Texas. Job numbers are available for all 50 states at www.solarstates.org.
- Matt Herzberg, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, SunEdison, explained that SunEdison is a global renewable energy company with offices in over 50 locations and more than 3,000 employees. It is both a solar installer and a solar developer.
- He emphasized the need for U.S. leadership in the solar industry. He suggested that solar jobs are readily available, but the industry needs stable policies that will reinforce growth.
- There is tremendous demand for solar. In 2013, there were more renewable installations than coal, nuclear, and gas installations (as measured in megawatts), and the numbers are projected to continue increasing.
- SunEdison has launched several solar jobs initiatives with GRID Alternatives:
- National Women in Solar Initiative - A national campaign to promote women in the solar workforce. This program will create training and networking opportunities for 1,000 women and provide affordable solar systems to over 1,000 low-income families.
- Realizing an Inclusive Solar Economy (RISE) - A $5 million partnership that will bring 4,000 solar jobs to underserved communities.
- Amit Ronen, Director, The George Washington (GW) Solar Institute, and Professor, GWU Trachtenberg School of Public Policy, spoke about the public policy trends and barriers to entry in the solar industry.
- Solar costs have experienced an 80 percent drop since 2010, and are projected to continue decreasing.
- Reducing soft costs (installation and permitting, as opposed to manufacturing and materials) will be the main driver of falling solar costs. Germany's soft costs for solar are half as much as America's, so there is much room for improvement.
- American support for solar energy is very high: 80 percent of respondents in a recent poll were very supportive of solar and wind power, and 10 percent were somewhat supportive. In a 2013 Gallup survey, two thirds of respondents supported more government funding for solar energy.
- Although solar currently constitutes less than one percent of the U.S. energy portfolio, there is plenty of room for the industry to grow. Within two decades, solar has the potential to become the number one energy source in the world.
- Solar employment will continue to grow about 20 times faster than the overall U.S. economy. Both public and private industries are planning to invest in solar. Solar growth overseas is even faster.
- There are, however, some clouds on the horizon:
- Certain utilities are battling distributed solar, seeing it as a threat to their business
- Public solar policies and incentives are uncertain. The federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC), for instance, will expire at the end of 2016.
- Solar power is competing on an uneven playing field (fossil fuels and nuclear continue to receive the lion's share of government support).
- Mike Carr, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), explained the DOE’s role in promoting renewable technologies and solar job growth. He discussed SunShot, an EERE initiative which seeks to make solar accessible and cost competitive with traditional energy resources.
- The SunShot project’s goals include maintaining U.S. leadership in Photovoltaic (PV) innovation, building a skilled solar workforce, and promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in the industry.
- The DOE is working to break down market barriers to entry and partner with the private sector to accelerate the development and spread of advanced solar technologies.
- Since the introduction of SunShot, the cost of PV utility systems has dropped from $3.80/watt to $1.68/watt. The initiative’s goal is to reach $1.00/watt by 2020.
- DOE is now targeting soft costs in particular, which represent up to 64 percent of the total cost of a solar installation. Soft costs including permitting fees, installation labor, transactions costs, and supply chain costs.
- Sunshot will create 200,090 new solar jobs if it reaches its 2020 goals.
- DOE is asking for an additional $103.7 million over 2015 enacted levels for its solar energy programs. The $336.7 million total request would fund concentrating solar power research, manufacturing innovation, and soft cost reduction initiatives (among other programs).
- DOE has launched an initiative to provide veterans with solar training. They receive 4-6 weeks of intensive PV installation training and are guaranteed interviews with at least 5 solar companies. The first class of U.S. Marines graduated in February of 2015.
- During the Q&A session, the following questions were addressed:
- How will the U.S. shale boom affect solar industry job growth? Shale’s low cost is certainly a challenge for solar; however, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Shale is more unpredictable than solar, and solar energy’s cost curves are projected to keep decreasing for the foreseeable future.
- What is the role of the Clean Power Plan in solar jobs creation? The Clean Power Plan was not taken into account in the job prediction models, since there is no way to predict how the plan will be implemented.
- How could Congress show support for solar jobs? The speakers all agreed that solar companies are emphasizing the need for stable public policies. In order to sustain job growth, the solar industry needs long-term, set, and stable policies (net metering, third party financing, Investment Tax Credit, etc.). The federal government could help level the playing field with other forms of energy and make solar policy more consistent nationwide.