100,237 And Growing: The Solar Industry's Job Prospects Are Sunny

Despite the hit it took when Solyndra's 1,000 jobs went away, the solar industry is adding positions at a pace that far outstrips the rest of the economy.

The solar industry has been in the post-Solyndra dumps. But here comes a timely ray of light: news that solar companies are adding jobs faster than the rest of the economy, and now employ more than 100,000 people nationwide. 

The Solar Foundation, the research and education arm of the Solar Energy Industries Association, says the industry added 6,735 jobs from the start of the year through August. Six thousand jobs does not sound like a lot, but it does represent a 6.8% increase. And that is better than the rest of the economy, which had jobs growth of just 0.7 percent, or the fossil fuel industry, which lost 2 percent of its jobs in the same period.  

Of course, growth figures can be misleading when you are starting from a relatively low base. But, according to the solar industry, the report shows the contribution to the economy that solar makes, and could continue to make if only policymakers would get behind it. Across manufacturing, installation, sales and distribution, solar companies now employ 100,237 people, including 25,575 in California, far-and-away the leading solar state (Colorado and Arizona come next, with 6,186 and 4,786 jobs respectively).

“Solyndra has tarnished the industry because of how political it has become,” says Andrea Luecke, executive director of the foundation. “But solar is the fastest growth energy sector, and one of the fast growing of any sector. Despite Solyndra and and the economy, solar is strong.”

Critics argue that solar's growth is artificial, and would not have happened without huge subsidies. They say creating jobs by investing in untested technologies is a risky course, as the $535 million failure of Solyndra shows. When the California company went down in September, it took 1,100 jobs with it. 

Moreover, there is evidence that subsidizing solar jobs can be expensive. A study (PDF) by Ruhr University of the German solar industry, the world’s most successful and most subsidized solar nation, estimates that its government paid €175,000 per job, more than most workers earn. 

In response, the solar industry points out that renewables create more jobs than other energy industries. An analysis (PDF) of 13 reports by UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory found that renewables produce more jobs per megawatt (after factoring the cost of construction, manufacturing, and installation) than either coal or natural gas.

And it also points to fossil fuels' huge subsidies. Between 1918 and 2009, oil and gas industries received $4.86 billion a year from government (adjusted for inflation), according to a recent study by Nancy Pfund, of DBL Investors, and Ben Healey, a Yale student. By contrast, renewables got just $0.37 billion per year between 1994 and 2009—$5.93bn over the period.

“I think it's double standard when people say that solar is only able to survive or create jobs because of subsidies. We receive a fraction of what the fossil fuels industries receive, and they are cutting jobs in the same period,” says Luecke, referring to the year to August.

The report says recent solar job creation has tended to go to the sunniest states—but not always. Pennsylvania (4,703 jobs) and New York (4,279) come fourth and fifth in the list, even though neither have year-round sun.

Luecke adds: “Everywhere in the United States has better solar resources than Germany, which is a world leader in solar energy, with 17 GW of installed capacity. I think the jobs come from having a good solar resource, but mostly from the policy development that's occurred in the last five or six years.”

The industry prays that—environment aside—its jobs story can help makes the case. 

[Image: Flickr user fdecomite]

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