Very Good News, Part 1—Smart Policy Sends Solar Jobs Soaring

In 2016, one in every 50 new American jobs was a solar job, according to the National Solar Jobs Census 2016. The solar industry now employs more people than natural gas and twice as many as coal. We have smart government policies to thank for that job growth.
Need some good news? This fact should make you smile: One out of every 50 new jobs last year in the United States was a solar job.
Credit: Vote Solar

The first in a two-part series about the potential from state energy policy.

In need of some very good news—something that’s about stopping climate change and creating good-paying, hard-to-outsource jobs all at the same time? The National Solar Jobs Census 2016 released this week may be just what the doctor ordered. Packed with smile-inducing, fact-checked info, it demonstrates how smart policies, at both the state and the federal level, can translate into public benefits, in this case: jobs—an additional 51,000 of them last year.

Here’s the most stunning statistic: One out of every 50 new jobs in the United States last year was a solar job.

Think about that for a minute: One in 50. Our friends at Vote Solar have observed that in 2016, those new 51,000 jobs translated into one new solar job every 10 minutes. And, together, they bring the new industry’s total to 260,000. (If you're wondering why these numbers are slightly different from the solar job numbers the U.S. Department of Energy released recently, we've got the answer: The DOE counts all jobs that include any time spent doing solar work. The Census only counts jobs in which at least 50 percent of a worker's time is spent on solar-related tasks.) 

Last year was also the fourth year in a row that solar jobs grew by 20 percent or more, far outpacing the economy as a whole. In fact, last year, solar jobs grew almost 17 times faster than jobs in the economy overall.

It’s worth noting that solar is job-intensive compared to other forms of electricity. Though natural gas supplies 34.4 percent of the nation’s electricity and coal produces 32.4 percent, the solar industry workforce is bigger than the natural gas workforce, and twice as big as coal, even with solar currently providing only 1.3 percent of the nation’s electric generating capacity.

Here are some other positive facts to consider:

Solar jobs are good-paying jobs: Installers, the folks who put solar photovoltaic (PV) panels up on your roof, make up the largest segment of the industry, and ones with just a high school education can earn a median wage of $26 an hour. Compare that with the wages in other industries open to people without college—fast food, retail, home health—and you understand the kind of promise the solar industry holds for America.

Solar manufacturing is on the rise: Solar manufacturing added 7,839 workers in the United States last year, an increase of 26 percent, while the rest of America’s manufacturing sector declined slightly. In other words, solar is doing more than its fair share to keep the nation’s manufacturing sector afloat.

Solar workers look more and more like America’s demographics: Between 2015 and 2016, the percentage of women in the solar workforce increased from 24 percent to 28 percent, while the percentage of African Americans increased from 5 percent to 7 percent, and Latinos from 11 percent to 17 percent.

Solar welcomes veterans: Military veterans in the solar industry outnumber those in the general workforce, 9 percent to 7 percent, thanks in part to programs pioneered jointly by the U.S. Department of Energy and the solar industry.

Solar is a great industry for people without a college education: In solar, experience is the most important hiring requirement. 65 percent of solar-related companies required experience, compared to only 32 percent requiring a bachelor’s degree or more.

What that means on the ground is that states with good solar policies and states considering them are seeing important increases in solar jobs—by upping their renewable energy standards, which require a specific amount of electricity to be generated from pollution-free resources; by maintaining and improving net metering policies that let solar owners sell their excess electricity back to the grid at a fair price; and, by creating other programs and policies that level the playing field for clean energy. Conversely some states are shooting themselves in the foot by creating uncertainty and making solar more expensive. In Nevada, for example, controversial and contentious net energy metering policies led to a 4 percent decrease in solar jobs, from 8,764 in 2015 to 8,371 in 2016.

Here are some of the leading states where solar jobs increased dramatically:

  • California: Up by a mind-boggling 24,000—32 percent—from 75,598 jobs in 2015 to more than 100,000 in 2016.
  • Colorado: Increased by 20 percent, from 4,998 in 2015 to 6,004 in 2016.
  • North Carolina: Grew by 20 percent, from 5,950 in 2015 to 7,112 in 2016.
  • New Mexico: Rose by a whopping 54 percent, from 1,899 in 2015 to 2,929 in 2016.
  • Pennsylvania: The numbers shot up by 23 percent, from 2,498 in 2015 to 3,061 in 2016.
  • Virginia: The surge was pretty mind-blowing: 65 percent, from 1,963 jobs in 2015 to 3,236 in 2016.

Here’s a simple, happy-making fact at the time when we need it most:

Solar creates good jobs for America. Jobs that feed families. Jobs that pay the dentist. Jobs that help people save for retirement. All the while, those jobs create the clean energy Americans overwhelmingly favor, no matter their political persuasion, and those jobs protect our climate, give our kids cleaner air to breathe, lower our electric bills, and improve our public health.

The more government policies support solar, the more solar supports us.

(Tomorrow in Part 2 in this series, I’ll highlight how renewable energy standards can help states play a pivotal role in ramping up the many benefits, including jobs, that clean energy offers us all.)

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