U.S. Solar Sector Jobs Rest On A Foundation Of Low-Cost Solar Panels


At a press event at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) in Washington, D.C., Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of The Solar Foundation (TSF), said the most important driver in the expansion of solar sector jobs in the U.S. has been the precipitous drop in the cost of solar power and the corresponding increase in installed capacity.

‘Jobs are directly correlated with installations,’ she said.

Luecke outlined her organization's recent solar jobs census and unveiled state-specific reports for California, Arizona and Minnesota.

Amit Ronen, director of the GW Solar Institute, which contributed to the execution of the study, said much of the job growth can be attributed specifically to the steep decline in the cost of solar panels. Speaking at the EESI press event, Ronen reported the price of solar panels has declined 80% since 2008.

TSF recently released a nationwide survey of solar sector employment that showed job growth in 43 states, plus the District of Columbia. Though many of these workers are concentrated in western states, employment has grown at a rapid pace in central states – with 65% employment growth – and in those east of the Mississippi, which experienced 41% growth. Two states showed neither growth nor loss, and only five states shed workers, the report says.

Regional growth was uneven, Luecke says, and this can be attributed to differences in outlook for the near future.

According to the report, California is the number one solar state, with one third of all workers in the U.S. solar sector and with 40% of U.S. installed capacity. At the same time, respondents in California were anticipating a 22% growth rate in the state's solar sector, compared with a 15.6% growth rate expected nationwide.

On the other hand, Arizona, the top solar state in terms of solar irradiance resources, actually lost 1,200 solar sector jobs last year. Luecke attributes this, in part, to the completion of the Solana concentrating solar power (CSP) facility, as well as uncertainty in the market. Respondents in Arizona were anticipating only a 5.6% growth rate this year.

The census – based on over 75,000 phone calls and emails to solar sector employers – has determined that the industry grew at 10 times the national average last year, creating 24,000 new jobs. According to TSF, survey respondents cited declining equipment costs as the primary driver behind the industry's growth and were optimistic about creating new jobs in 2014.

Since the start of the annual census in 2010, U.S. solar sector employment has increased 53% and now employs more than 142,000 people at about 18,000 locations. For the purposes of the census, TSF says solar workers must spend at least half of their time in the solar sector and include people in all parts of the supply chain -Â including those in nonprofit organizations. Nevertheless, Luecke points out that the 91% of the people classified as solar workers spend 100% of their time employed in the industry.

‘These are high-paying, high-skilled, highly sought-after jobs,’ she said.

Preparing to travel to California for the dedication of the Ivanpah CSP facility this week, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz issued a release praising the Golden State for its leadership role in creating solar sector jobs.

‘As President Obama made clear in his State of the Union address, the United States is becoming a global leader in solar – giving more and more American families and businesses access to affordable, clean energy,’ Moniz's statement said. ‘With over 47,000 workers employed up and down the solar supply chain, California is leading the way – supporting new jobs and businesses and building a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.’

An interactive solar sector map of U.S. states based on TSF's 2013 study can be found here.

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