The number of jobs created to make, sell and install solar panels in the U.S. grew at a record pace last year, and grew much faster than the overall American economy, which is welcome news for the solar industry in the face of policy uncertainty.
The new figures were issued on Tuesday morning, courtesy of a new report from The Solar Foundation. The report -- the seventh annual edition to come from the nonprofit -- found that there were 260,077 solar workers as of November 2016, which represents nearly 25 percent growth from the amount of solar jobs recorded the year prior. In comparison, jobs in the overall U.S. economy grew at a rate of 1.45 percent.
Last year's solar market performance made 2016 the fourth consecutive year that U.S. solar jobs grew by 20 percent or more, the report found. It also made for some eye-popping figures, like how 1 out of every 50 new jobs, or 2 percent of new jobs, created in the U.S. in 2016 came from the solar industry.
The news highlights how the U.S. solar industry is becoming an important economic driver, and creating a substantial amount of jobs for American workers in various sectors like construction, sales, marketing and engineering. The U.S. solar industry now employs more workers than natural gas, more than double the number of workers in the coal industry, and in comparison to other energy sectors, employment in solar trails only the U.S. oil industry.
The latest figures will be important ones for the solar industry to tout in the face of potential policy uncertainty stemming from the election of President Donald Trump.
“The solar industry is an American success story,” said Andrea Luecke, executive director of The Solar Foundation, and these numbers “are proof positive” of that. “Despite partisanship and the election, people really do love solar. Every poll says so. Even conservative Republicans favor solar,” added Luecke.
While Trump has said he’s in favor of job creation from any energy sector, he emphasized the fossil fuel industries during his campaign. He's said he will repeal environmental regulations on the coal industry and has a cabinet stocked with folks with oil connections such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. He's also personally made various negative comments about the wind industry (especially when offshore wind turbines have been in the sight line of one of his golf courses).
The Solar Foundation’s jobs numbers contrast a bit with the solar jobs figures that came out of the Department of Energy’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report in January, which found that there were 374,000 solar workers in 2016. But that data included workers that spent some portion of their time in solar, while the Solar Foundation’s new report only focused on workers that primarily work in solar.
Regardless, the growth numbers between 2015 and 2016 are big. “This is by far the largest growth rate,” said Luecke.
One reason for the higher-than-usual number of jobs added is because of the growth in utility-scale solar projects last year.
The 30 percent federal Investment Tax Credit for solar projects was originally set to be ratcheted down by the end of 2016, but was extended at the very end of 2015, and will now begin to phase out in 2019. Even though the industry got its holiday extension, many utility solar projects were still started in 2015 and completed in 2016. Utility-scale solar development companies hired on average 20 workers in 2016, according to the report.
It’s to be expected, then, that such a high job growth rate is unlikely to continue into 2017. The Solar Foundation estimates that job growth rate will be closer to 10 percent for 2017, leading to 286,000 solar workers by the end of this year. The number of solar panels installed across the U.S. in 2017 is expected to be slightly lower than it was in 2016.
"As our base grows, we’ll be seeing slower growth," said Luecke, “which is not uncommon for a maturing industry.”
Despite the bump in utility-scale solar projects, workers that install solar panels on home rooftops made up a large portion of both the new jobs created and current jobs held. While that sector is growing, residential solar work also requires more workers per unit of energy installed compared to building utility-scale solar projects or installing solar panels on the roofs of large corporate buildings.
Forty-one percent of the current solar jobs in the U.S. are in residential solar installations, and workers get paid on average $26 per hour, the report found. In 2017, residential solar jobs are expected to see the biggest growth in comparison to other solar sectors, which will likely continue for years to come.
The Solar Foundation is also bullish on the amount of jobs created by pairing batteries with solar panels, led by companies like Tesla and AES Energy Storage. The nonprofit projects that there will be 27,000 new solar-plus-energy-storage jobs by 2021, which includes 9,000 energy storage jobs and 18,000 solar jobs that wouldn’t be created without combining solar with storage. “Storage is going to be huge,” said Luecke.
Those energy storage jobs are just starting to deliver on major battery projects in states like California. Last week a series of big battery projects was completed for the California power grid and utilities like Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.
With these latest job figures, the solar industry shows how it’s become a mature and important economic force and job creator in the U.S. Job creation is one of the keys to a powerful lobbying force and influence in Washington, D.C., so expect these job numbers to be echoed around clean energy sectors this year. Almost all of the states that voted for Trump saw growth in solar jobs, many of them strong growth.
Many industry watchers don’t expect that the new administration will be able to derail mature industries like solar and wind. The Solar Foundation’s Luecke certainly agrees. At least at this point, "There’s nothing that could happen at the federal level that could shut solar down completely," she said.