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  • Jan

Solar Power Jobs Surge as U.S. Industry Adds 31,000 Workers

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Solar power continues to be a high-revving jobs engine in the United States, surging to 173,807 positions industry wide by late 2014, a 21.8 percent increase over a year earlier, according to an annual survey.

High-profile trade cases brought by Oregon-based SolarWorld Industries Americas have put a focus on solar manufacturing in the United States, and that sector of the industry did experience a bit of a revival in 2014, gaining more than 2,500 workers.

But putting panels on roofs and building utility-scale arrays is where the real solar jobs action was – there were 97,031 workers in installation as of last November, more than three times the 32,490 in manufacturing.

solar-jobsUS Solar Jobs Data. Credit: National Solar Foundation

As it has in the past, the National Solar Foundation said the National Solar Jobs Census showed an industry outperforming the wider employment market, both in the number of jobs and in the value of those jobs.

“This year’s Census found that the industry continues to exceed growth expectations, adding workers at a rate nearly 20 times faster than the overall economy and accounting for 1.3% of all jobs created in the U.S. over the past year,” the report said. “Our long-term research shows that solar industry employment has grown by 86% in the past five years, resulting in nearly 80,000 domestic living-wage jobs.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association said in December that just shy of 4 gigawatts of solar was installed in the first three quarters of 2014, and forecast 6.5 GW for the year, a 36 percent increase over 2013. That explains why solar manufacturing jobs grew by 27,000 workers in a year, putting the installation sector alone ahead of coal mining (93,185 jobs), according to the report. The Census said 2015 should bring more of the same, with installation jobs rising to 118,942 by November.

Amid all the celebration and optimism, the report did contain a cautionary note regarding the looming expiration of the 30-percent Investment Tax Credit for solar. “(I)f the ITC reverts to the 10% level in 2017” as the law now dictates, “solar employment growth is likely to slow or may even experience significant job losses,” the report said.

According to the report, 72.7 percent of solar businesses said the ITC significantly helped them – and it was the installers more than anyone who feared what could happen come 2017. “When asked how eliminating the residential credit and reducing the commercial credit after 2016 would impact their hiring decisions, 61.7% said they would likely lay off staff and/or contractors,” the report said.

The industry is already pushing hard for an extension, but with the Republican-led Congress in place for the next two years, it’s tough to say if it will get done. Still, at least one solar leader thinks the industry could not only survive post-ITC, but thrive.

In an interview, entrepreneur Jigar Shah said the 30-percent ITC really serves to pump up margins throughout the industry, not lower prices for consumers. He called the U.S. the second-most “oversubsidized” market in the world, behind only Japan, and said that because of that “the supply chain is inefficient” and “everything is more expensive in the U.S.”

If the 30 percent ITC goes away in a clear, orderly fashion – with projects under construction before the end of 2016 grandfathered in – the industry will adjust its margins, he said, fueling demand even in the absence of the big subsidy.

“There won’t be jobs lost,” Shah said. “The only reason jobs will be lost if Congress leaves it in limbo” – which, of course, is how Congress has habitually treated wind’s most important subsidy, the Production Tax Credit, creating boom and bust periods.

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