The overall jobs forecast may be improving only slowly—though it is improving—but the solar industry has shown consistently strong growth, despite the difficult economic times. In fact, job growth in the solar industry has far outpaced job growth across the economy overall.
On November 2, the Solar Foundation released early findings from its National Solar Jobs Census 2012 showing that over the past 12 months, the U.S. solar industry added 13,872 new solar jobs—an increase of 13.2%. Over the same period, employment in the U.S. overall rose just 2.3% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Solar jobs tend to be high-skilled, high-paying jobs, and include installation, sales, marketing and software development. “The solar industry has grown at significantly higher rates than most other industries in the past several years, making it one of the foremost creators of new jobs in the United States,” said Andrea Luecke, executive director of the Solar Foundation. She adds that “these new solar industry jobs are sustainable, cannot be outsourced and play a critical role in our country’s economic recovery.”
Solar’s success comes in part from policies at the federal level, particularly the solar investment tax credit. That tax credit allows businesses and homeowners to save 30% of the cost of new solar installations and is set to expire in 2016.
“The most important thing is consistent tax incentive policy, and right now the solar industry has that through 2016,” Nat Kreamer, CEO of Clean Power Finance, which works with solar installers to access financing, told Reuters. Thus far, a stalemate in Washington over tax reform has kept the solar investment tax credit safe, but such credits are certain to be reexamined following the Nov. 6 election, regardless of who wins.
“Comprehensive tax reform might open the book on everything,” Kreamer said, “which would create uncertainty in the solar investment market. Uncertainty leads to slowdowns in the industry and that would be very unfortunate.”
Another reason for solar’s success, according to the Solar Jobs Census, is lower solar energy prices—in part driven by cheaper Chinese solar panels. Prices are so low, in fact, that solar has nearly become competitive with fossil fuels. A September 2012 article in the Washington Post notes that: “When President Jimmy Carter installed a solar-powered water-heating system at the White House in the late 1970s, solar panels cost about $15 per watt of electricity generated, or about $50 in current dollars, according to GTM Research…Now they average about 84 cents a watt.”
State incentives for solar have boosted the industry, too, as has the popularity of solar leasing, in which homeowners pay as little as zero down and a company installs and maintains the panels. The monthly payments are typically $10-$20 per month less than what customers would pay for their electric bill.
“The solar energy industry is creating jobs in America when we need them most,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “The rapid growth of jobs in the solar industry clearly demonstrates that smart policies, including the federal investment tax credit, are putting Americans back to work. In addition to jobs, these policies are driving down the cost of solar and providing a clean, reliable energy choice for millions of homeowners and businesses.”