THE SUSTAINABILITY MARKETPLACE:2017 Solar Job Boom Reveals Mainstream U.S. Industry

One of the wonderful benefits about leading the solar energy industry is creating job growth. Solar doesn’t just deliver clean, affordable renewable energy—it’s a dynamic and rapidly growing ecosystem that improves lives by providing meaningful, well-paying jobs and high-skilled careers.

Employment numbers associated with the clean energy sector are rising dramatically in the United States. Several reports by renewable energy industry organizations issued since early 2017, reach consistent conclusions: the solar energy workforce is growing ridiculously fast, and for good reasons.

National Solar Jobs Census 2016, produced annually by the Solar Foundation since 2010, purports to be “the most credible annual review of the solar energy workforce in the U.S.” It tracks current employment, trends, and projected growth in the U.S. solar industry. Key facts revealed include:

  1. The solar industry employed over 260,000, through the end of 2016.
  2. In 2016 solar jobs increased by 51,000—a 25% jump over 2015’s total—and increased in 44 of the 50 states, demonstrating sector growth nationwide, not just in limited areas.
  3. Solar jobs have nearly tripled since 2010—a remarkable jump from 93,500 workers.
  4. For the past four years, solar jobs increased by at least 20% per year.
  5. Solar jobs represent 2% of all new jobs, one out of every 50, in 2016.
  6. Solar industry employment growth outpaced the overall U.S. economy by 17 times.
  7. Solar in the U.S. now employs more than twice as many workers as the entire American coal industry, and as many as the natural gas industry.

These are gripping statistics for any industry, but especially for an industry many observers wrote off as not viable just a few years back.

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The dramatic increase in solar jobs is driven in part by supportive public policy frameworks, and construction work associated with expanding generation capacity, but mostly by several other factors, like:

  • Rapid decrease in the cost of solar panels (solar PV panel production costs dropped 72% from 2010 to 2015).
  • Lower installation costs (in part due to technology and tax incentives), which have dropped by 60% in the last 10 years.
  • The availability of affordable electric energy storage.
  • Commercial and industrial property owners’ strong (and increasing) commitment to onsite hosting of solar technologies.
  • Exploding consumer demand for solar panel installations.
  • The dedication of industry leaders like Sunpower, LG, and Boviet Solar USA to advancing the solar industry’s growth curve.

Consumers, businesses, and policy makers increasingly recognize solar energy’s low cost, reliability, and its vital role in national energy strategy and grid independence. Leveraging the sun to cleanly power our lives is finally mainstream culture. Drilling down into the 2016 Solar Jobs Census reveals growth in:

  • 26% in manufacturing jobs—to 38,000.
  • 14% in installation jobs—to 137,000.
  • 53% in project-management jobs—to 34,400.
  • 32% in sales and distribution jobs—to 32,000.

The 53% increase in project-management jobs is explained by recent solar-capacity additions that are predominantly in commercial and utility-scale solar photovoltaic generation. Between January and October 2016, utility-scale PV generation added 28,000,000 MWh, while distributed solar generation added 17,000,000 MWh, roughly. Despite the recent dominance of utility-scale generation projects, 55% of solar workers spend most of their time on residential solar projects, while 25% work mostly on commercial projects, and 20% work mostly on utility-scale projects.

Following The Solar Foundation’s Solar Jobs Census 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report 2017, released in January 2017, reports that U.S. solar employment in 2016 reached 374,000 (a number higher than the Solar Jobs Census figure of 260,000 due to The Solar Foundation’s more rigorous tests for counting solar jobs). The DOE’s reported 374,000 workers include, “Americans that spend some portion of their time working to manufacture, install, distribute, or provide professional services to solar technologies across the nation,” whereas the Solar Foundation’s 260,000 figure is comprised predominantly of full-time solar industry workers only.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy study, the solar industry now employs more people (at 260,000 – 374,000) than fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), employing roughly only 187,117 combined, in the U.S. electric-power-generation sector. Significantly, the DOE’s 2017 report also notes that solar power employed 43% of the electric-power-generation sector’s workforce in 2016—and fossil fuels combined for just 22%. As a job-creating engine, the solar industry is clearly blowing some doors off here.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), published its May 2017 Renewable Energy and Jobs, Annual Review 2017, has U.S. solar energy employment at 255,000 (241,900 in PV, and 13,000 in solar heating and cooling), and reports that, worldwide, PV was the largest employer among renewable energy industries, with 3.1 million jobs, up 12% from 2015 (most of this growth is attributable to China, the U.S., and India). IRENA’s Annual Review 2017 has global renewable-energy employment at 9.8 million.

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In the U.S., solar generating capacity is slightly more than 1% of total national power capacity, while coal is 26%. Notably, the U.S. solar workforce has twice as many workers as the highly-automated coal industry (Solar Foundation, 2017; USDOE, 2017a).

Yet another report demonstrating rising employment in renewables—Now Hiring: The Growth of America’s Clean Energy and Sustainability Jobs, produced by the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps in January 2017—found that jobs in the clean energy and sustainability sector increased from 3.4 million in 2011 to over 4 million today (up over 17%). The EDF report estimates that solar and wind energy jobs are growing 12 times faster than the overall U.S. economy, and that almost one-half of large businesses hired workers to manage sustainability issues in 2015 and 2016. It also found that 70% of U.S. energy-efficiency-related jobs are with companies employing fewer than 10 persons—demonstrating that clean energy growth is a boom for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

 

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Solar Employment Is Diverse

The solar employment bonanza isn’t just benefitting installers or technicians—it’s fostering high-skilled careers all over the country in many job sectors. Commenting on the EDF report, Liz Delaney, EDF Climate Corps’ program director, said, “These jobs are widely geographically distributed, they're high-paying, they apply to both manufacturing and professional workers, and there are a lot of them.” Paying better than the national average, solar workers install panels on homes, work in sales, manage utility-scale projects, manufacture parts, and develop energy policy and financial strategies. Workers with a high-school degree or a PhD are likely to find a well-paying career in solar, most anywhere in the country.

The range of job opportunities is broad. IRENA’s Annual Review 2017 finds most solar industry jobs are installation-related (over 50%), followed by manufacturing (15%), project development (13%), sales-and-distribution (12%), and other categories like research-and-development (6%). Similarly, the U.S. Department of Energy study reports solar employment is 37% construction/installation, 26.5% wholesale trade, 18.5% in manufacturing, and 14.3% in professional services. Complimenting these dramatic employment statistics, additional studies reveal that the solar industry’s 2016 workforce is quite cultural diverse as well, including 28 –33% female (34% in the sales and distribution area, and up from 19% in 2013), 7 – 9% African-American, and 17 – 22.5% Hispanic. Indeed, a wide range of workers hired into the solar industry apply their existing skills and training or acquire new skills.

 

Projection — The Strong Solar Employment Trend Will Keep Going

In less than a decade, solar has turned the tables and wowed many analysts on employment and growth developments. And the fun may just be starting. Solar’s unprecedented employment trend is likely to continue for a lot of reasons. The U.S. Department of Energy study predicts/suggests the solar industry will continue growing by 10% at least through 2017—a conservative projection considering 2016’s 25% jump over 2015, but appropriate given the myriad uncertainties facing the solar industry (e.g., the impact of political policy changes, which ironically may be driven by the industry’s success). Many expect growth in solar employment to remain robust and far better than general U.S. economic growth. Across the country, solar development potential is huge and remains largely untapped.

While utility-scale solar projects may scale back somewhat due to changes in tax policy, the otherwise compelling economic equation for solar implementation continues increasing, especially with electric energy-storage advances and cost reductions, and the lower cost of solar panel installation. Market forces and economics will continue to foster growth and employment expansion in the solar industry.

 

Boviet Solar USA’s Role in Solar Employment and Growth

Boviet is proud to be a growth leader in the U.S. economy’s fastest-growing job market, especially since so many of the jobs created are in small businesses and startups. Once PV panels are installed, extracting solar energy is essentially cost free. Paying workers to manufacture, sell, and install solar panels is the primary cost factor for solar implementation, which explains the proliferation of jobs and small-enterprise creation in the solar sector. The solar industry is thus an advocate of—and conduit for—USA economic and employment growth. Opportunity abounds in the solar sector.

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Image via Bureau of Labor Statistics

Beyond building a sustainable future, Boviet appreciates its role as an engine supporting American small business in the solar sector—and intends to expand that role—to build prosperity today for many Americans. Energy innovation is now recognized as an important driver of economic growth in America. As a leader in solar technology, we anticipate strong, sustained employment growth throughout the solar industry over the coming five years—as the market advances and industry and consumers continue to embrace solar’s many advantages. This is why Boviet recently added a new wave of experts to its staff, and why our development division is enthusiastically pursuing effective project and installation partnerships. By pursuing this growth objective, Boviet sets stages for even more job creation, continues its brand mission, and ensures its best service to customers, the community, investors—and hard-working job seekers.

Eric Ma, Boviet’s President of Projects & Investments, is playing a key role in the company’s industry growth leadership. Since joining Boviet Solar USA in early 2015, Mr. Ma has led the company in delivering commercial-grade solar modules, and related products to contractors, integrators, and utilities across the country, ensuring that all solar industry players are able to grow their businesses, meet demand, and hire and effectively deploy personnel required in today’s dynamic growth circumstances. Starting May 2017, Eric Ma has taken the lead in Boviet’s new solar project development and investment division to expand the company's business. Since assuming responsibility for solar project development strategy and execution, he has managed the acquisition, construction and financing of over 30MW in solar utility projects and developed a solar-project pipeline of over 50MW.

We’re driving a slice of the solar energy boom. We like leading in an industry that’s busy building a stronger, more resilient America—in terms of industrial expansion, energy efficiency, and economic and employment strength. As this exciting march continues, we hope many more will join us in solar energy’s transformative progress.

 

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Tags: The Current eZine, Policy, Economy

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