By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow
Last week, the Solar Foundation released a report on trends in employment in the U.S. solar industry, concluding that solar industry jobs have grown 123% since 2010. According to the report, the solar industry “continues to outpace most other sectors of the economy, adding workers at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy and accounting for 1.2% of all jobs created in the U.S. over the past year.”
In conducting the census, the Solar Foundation sent and received surveys from thousands of businesses to determine which areas of the solar industry are growing, in which states, and which policies are responsible for encouraging that growth.
With respect to growth areas, the report noted that almost two-thirds of the new solar jobs last year were created in the installation sector, and that sector now represents 57% of total solar industry employment. And given that this statistic does not even include utility-scale installers, the findings show the important role that distributed generation plays in the solar industry. In fact, the report also found that 78% of solar jobs are either in the residential or commercial market, compared to only 22% in the utility-scale market. These are the kind of statistics that all levels of government should keep in mind when considering whether to shrink or expand various tax credits, renewable portfolio standards, net metering, and other policies aimed at encouraging investment in renewables.
In fact, the states that are experiencing the most solar growth seem to be ones that have strongly incentivized distributed generation at the state level. California (75,598 jobs), Massachusetts (15,095 jobs) and Nevada (8,764 jobs) lead the county in the number of solar jobs. At least in the past, these states had in common a commitment to policies that strongly encourage renewable development. California, for example, has host of policies in place to advance renewables, including rebates, grants, tax credits, and a net-metering policy that allows owners of offsite solar installations to benefit as well (via so-called “virtual” net metering). Massachusetts has similar incentives in place, and has also recently raised its cap on net metering.
Nevada, which also has lots of policies in place to encourage renewables, provides a great example of the effect state policies have on the renewable industry. When Nevada recently gutted the state’s net-metering policy, SolarCity (the state’s largest solar job provider) cut 550 jobs. The connection between job availability and policies encouraging solar investment seems fairly clear from the facts.
According to the report, the solar industry acknowledges the importance of state and federal policies that advance renewables. When asked about the importance of various policies to business prospects, 78% of solar businesses responded that the federal investment tax credit, recently extended by Congress, was “considerably or somewhat important,” and 57% responded that state-level policies were as important. Again, these responses especially make sense with respect to small-scale distributed generation. Even with the falling cost of installing solar PV, it’s still a large up-front investment. By providing customers with incentives, the number of residential and commercial owners willing to invest in solar increases, adding to the demand for people to manufacture and install those panels.
Overall, the report offers strong support for the economic argument that President Obama made in favor of advancing renewables in his last State of the Union address: a growing renewable industry is good for the economy. And in light the political difficulty of using climate change as an argument to advance renewables, perhaps advocates should be touting the economic benefits of a growing renewable industry more often.