Sun Shines Solar Provides Clean Energy and Creates Jobs

The rise of solar energy as a viable technology contributing to a clean electricity future is exciting enough, but so is the industry’s ability to create well-paying, life-enhancing jobs. Several studies have reached the same conclusion: the solar industry—and renewable energy in general—is much more impressive at creating jobs than the fossil fuel industry. In 2007, it is launching 10 times the jobs.

A widely quoted University of California (UC) report concludes we can expect 86,370 new energy jobs in the U.S. by 2020 if we continue with our current energy mix. But if 20 percent of our energy were to come from renewable sources, then 188,000 to 240,850 jobs could be created, depending on the proportion of wind, solar and biomass energy. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimates that 1.1 million jobs could be created in the next 10 years through investments in energy efficiency technology.

The Solar Difference

Solar photovoltaics (PV) create more jobs per megawatt of capacity than any other energy technology—20 manufacturing and 13 installation or maintenance jobs per installed megawatt, according to the UC report. The New Jersey Public Interest Research Group reports that if only 10 percent of the homes in the Mid-Atlantic states used some solar power, 25,390 jobs would be created, with a payroll of $364 million by 2014.

Another study, “The Job Creation Potential of Solar and Conservation: A Critical Evaluation,” concludes that solar PV creates 55 to 80 times as many direct jobs as natural gas, and solar heating creates two to eight times more direct jobs than conventional power plants.

Solar also offers much-needed high-paying manufacturing and installation jobs as well as jobs for highly skilled engineers and managers, often in areas of the country struggling with higher unemployment. Better still, solar jobs contribute to the local economy: PV companies site manufacturing facilities near thriving markets. States with strong solar programs like California are a magnet for PV companies, which not only contribute directly to the state’s economy, but also make them net exporters: The companies export at least half the panels produced in-state.

Daniel Kammen, author of the UC report and head of the college’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, says, “Investing in clean energy technologies would both reduce our trade deficit and reestablish the U.S. as a leader in the largest global industry today.”

Solarizing America

Many of the leading solar companies in the world are taking up residence in the U.S. as we become more open to solar. Germany-based SolarWorld has put down roots in California and Norway’s REC Solar is manufacturing silicon in Washington State. And there are legions of small solar installers complementing the larger emerging U.S. companies like SunEdison—which in its three years of operations has created 150 jobs. It’s become commonplace for PV companies to hire hundreds of people at a time.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) certainly sees the potential—it it has been training members as solar installers for several years. Says Clifford Reisser, training director for the IBEW Southern New Jersey chapter, “The bottom line is, this means jobs for our members.”

The union takes trainees through their paces on solar systems installed on IBEW centers in New York, California, New Jersey and other states. IBEW is so keen on solar that it lobbied successfully in the state legislature for California’s Million Solar Roofs law to require that all installation be performed by union labor.

There’s also a surge of PV certification programs and training programs of all kinds, including on-the-ground workshops offered by such groups as Solar Energy International and a range of college and university programs. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners conducts a national certification program for PV installers, and the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation certifies solar thermal.

“We’re producing high-quality manufacturing jobs when others are moving out of the U.S.,” says, Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. Thus far, the U.S. has about 20,000 solar jobs. It’s not a big number yet, but with widely forecast 35 percent-a-year growth, it’s only the beginning.