Solar energy has put more people to work than any other type of renewable energy (hydropower excepted), and it's still going strong. The solar industry, which now provides more than 260,000 jobs, has reached new heights year after year: since 2010, the number of solar jobs has grown by 178 percent, and solar job growth continued to soar in 2016. According to The Solar Foundation's latest survey, the 51,000 jobs created last year mean solar employment increased faster than employment in any other energy sector, and solar now accounts for twice the jobs of a coal industry that seemed untouchable just a few decades ago. The solar industry also employs more workers than does natural gas extraction. And though wind energy, another renewable source experiencing fast-moving growth, is making great strides, it only employs a third the workers solar does.

This solar energy boom has brought some measure of economic security to many people who were previously struggling. Solar workers are not immune to the job security concerns facing the rest of the economy, with a significant percentage of people employed by the industry working as contractors. But, wages in the solar energy sector remain competitive with comparable industries and in most cases are above the national average, which was $17.81 per hour in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The 2016 National Jobs Census shows that companies looking to hire solar installers advertised a median wage of 26 dollars per hour; solar designers as well as sales, marketing, and customer service professionals earn between $27 and $29 on average. And a healthy solar industry helps grow other burgeoning sectors of the clean energy economy, such as battery storage, smart grids, and electric vehicles—technologies that all produce high-paying jobs.

Analysts predict a bright future for solar jobs, as global investments continue and technological innovation shrinks costs even further. Solar jobs are expected to grow by another 10 percent over the next year. Employment for solar installers is projected to rise by an average of 24 percent per year, a rate much higher than the economy-wide average. As rosy as the solar picture is, even greater prosperity shimmers just beyond the horizon. Solar energy companies report they are struggling to fill higher skilled positions due to a shortage of qualified candidates. Energy experts assert that job training programs could create thousands of additional solar jobs over the next decade. Therefore, it makes economic sense for federal and state policymakers to invest more in education and job training to help unleash these job opportunities.

Clean energy is at the cutting edge of technological and economic innovation. Far too often, however, the discourse on energy policy has been stuck in an old paradigm, dating from when coal was king. In fact, technological advancements, market forces, and government policies have not only made the use of renewable energy economically viable, but renewable energy is now the cheapest source of energy in many parts of the country, even without government subsidies. Likewise, the predominance of fossil fuel energy once meant that economic growth and job creation could not happen without an associated increase in greenhouse gas emissions. But the rise of clean energy technology has flipped that formula on its head: economic growth can rise even while greenhouse gas emissions fall, as has been the case in 21 countries, including the United States, since 2000.


Author: Ben Topiel