Solar Industry Continues to Create Jobs at Remarkable Rate


Sky-high job numbers, anticipated manufacturing job gains in 2016, veterans employed at rates higher than the national average--that's some of the great news out yesterday about solar employment in The Solar Foundation's annual National Solar Job Census.


Perhaps the greatest news of all, though, is that with the right policies in place, the solar industry can and will continue to help grow the middle class. Jobs in solar manufacturing pay a median of $18 an hour, and installers--those folks up on people's roofs--earn even more, a median of $21 an hour, up 5 percent from last year's median of $20. And there's room for advancement, too, as today's report notes: A "solar panel installer making $33,200 to start can in five years make $41,300 as a solar panel installer, $45,200 as a construction foreman, or $67,900 as a construction manager." That's serious income mobility.

The solar industry added 35,000 new jobs last year, according to the National Solar Jobs Census 2015. (Photo: Lexey Swall)

Now, let's look at the astoundingly good big picture for 2015 solar jobs overall:


• Solar jobs continued their breathtaking climb in 2015: The solar industry added 35,000 new jobs last year, bringing the industry total to 209,000, up from 94,000 in 2010. That job growth was far from an isolated event - last year was the third year in a row during which solar job growth reached more than 20 percent.


• Solar jobs are growing far faster than nationwide employment as a whole: Overall, American job growth hit 1.74 percent last year. The solar job growth rate was 20.2 percent, nearly 12 times higher. Solar is growing so fast, in fact, that one in every 83 new jobs in the U.S. last year was a solar job.


• Almost two-thirds of jobs are in the residential market: The residential market--solar on homeowners' roofs--is the most labor-intensive and remains the industry's largest employer.


• Solar now employs more than many fossil fuel sectors: While supplying only about 1 percent of U.S. electricity, solar industry employment has now more than tripled coal mining employment. Not only that, the authors observe: "Since 2014, solar installation has created significantly more jobs than both oil/gas pipeline construction and crude petroleum/natural gas extraction combined."


• Veterans remain a strong presence in the solar industry. Women are better represented than in similar industries: Over 8 percent of solar workers are veterans, compared to 7 percent in the national workforce. Although veteran representation declined this year, industry initiatives and the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Ready Vets program seek to bring veteran employment in the solar industry to 50,000 by 2020.


Women now make up a larger share of the solar workforce--24 percent, compared to 22 percent last year. Although that's far below the national average overall, it is significantly higher than in similar industries, such as construction, coal, and oil and gas drilling.


That's not to say there's not still important progress to be made - as the authors point out, the industry "still has much work to do to represent the rich diversity of the overall U.S. population," later describing that are initiatives underway at "many major companies within the solar recruit a more diverse staff."


• Solar employers see smart public policies as key to solar job growth: 78 percent of solar firms see the recently extended federal solar investment tax credit as increasing business prospects. State-level renewable energy standards and the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from the nation's power plants are also seen as important business, and therefore, employment drivers. These policies spur demand, leading to a virtuous cycle of cost declines and increasing cost competitiveness, and in turn, even greater demand.


The converse is true, too. A recent decision by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission to put an end to retail net metering, which offers residential and commercial solar owners a fair price for the electricity they feed back to the grid, has already resulted in significant solar job losses in that state, with solar installers Sunrun and SolarCity already pulling out of the Silver State market.


Clean energy technologies like solar power promise our country so much--a more stable climate, healthier air for our kids to breathe, lower energy costs, and plenty of good-paying jobs--jobs that can bring an increasing number of Americans into the middle class. Yesterday's solar jobs report shows once again that the more we support solar, the more solar supports us.