The solar industry has long laid claim to job creation as one of its non-environmental benefits. This has helped to engage the conservative audience, making solar a great opportunity for reaching across the aisle. The recent extension of the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) shows that solar has bipartisan support and is a good issue for compromise. After all, what politician wouldn’t want to say they created jobs?
Lately, the blogosphere is abuzz with news that solar now creates more jobs than the coal industry. Since solar makes up less than 1% of our electric energy generation–compared to coal’s 39%–how many more solar jobs will be created if solar continues to grow and becomes a sizable portion of the electric profile in the U.S?
According to the Solar Energy Technologies Office, labor accounts for about one-quarter of the cost of solar. In its current state, the sale and installation of solar is very labor intensive. As the industry matures, installation efficiency will continue to increase with advances in technology. For instance, in 2012, it took 19 people to install one megawatt of solar power, compared to only 15 in 2015. Installers are also reporting other gains in efficiency, saying that solar installations that used to take 2 days have dropped down to 1 since 2013. It’s clear that as installation processes continue to become more refined and efficient, falling costs will drive project volume and establish solar as a solid base of domestic employment.
President Obama talked about solar as a bright spot in the economy during his recent State of the Union Address, pointing out that 1 in every 83 jobs created is in the solar industry, and that solar employment has grown by 20% year-over-year for the past 3 years. This compares to the rest of the economy, where the jobs added in the past 5-7 years have not been monumental, and wages across the nation have barely kept up with the cost of living.
Another great thing about solar installation jobs is that they cannot be outsourced. Similar to construction, these jobs need manpower onsite. Installing solar panels and connecting them to the grid requires training, but it doesn’t require tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.
Not only are these jobs accessible to those without four-year degrees, but the pay rates support a healthy middle class, as well. In states with unionized construction, like California, the average solar installer makes about $39/hour. Nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median hourly wage for solar PV installers at more than $20/hour.
With recent advancement through supportive policies, and increased marketplace and technical efficiencies. the solar industry could be reaching an employment tipping point. Maybe that’s why the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Ready Vets program is now working to train vets in solar and hopes to bring veteran employment in the solar industry to 50,000 by 2020. And as solar continues its rapid and accelerating growth, there’s no doubt that the industry will continue to add jobs in tandem with that growth.