The Solar Foundation released its annual Solar Jobs Census Tuesday, and found that for the third straight year, the solar workforce grew 20 percent in the United States. According to the census, the industry added 35,052 jobs, elevating its grand total to 208,859. That builds on the 31,000 jobs added the year before, and 23,600 added the year before that.
“It’s incredible,” SolarCity CEO and co-founder Lyndon Rive told ThinkProgress. “The industry employs over 200 thousand people — more than the coal industry.”
The census found that even just the U.S. solar installation sector employed 77 percent more people than the coal mining industry. Installers have reported the most job growth by far, with project development, sales, and distribution also rising.
Most of these jobs (83 percent) were new positions, and 65 percent were in the installation sector. Solar ranked third behind wind and gas power capacity in 2015, with over two gigawatts being added to the grid across several states. Companies expect this trend to continue as costs keep declining — over two dollars per watt over the last five years.
Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, told ThinkProgress that the industry “continues to create skilled well-paying jobs at a really fast clip.” Workers in the solar industry, she said, find it easy to rise and be promoted, while wages continue to be competitive with similar industries. Solar businesses are employing more women than in previous years — 49,775 workers over the last year, which is up from 37,500 the year before. Though the census did find some percentage decline in racial and ethnic minorities working in the solar industry — 5 percent of the workforce is African American, 11 percent Latino, and 9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander — the absolute numbers did rise.
The percentage of military veterans working solar jobs declined to 8.1 percent in the last year from 9.7 percent in 2014. Luecke said that the number of veterans in the industry did rise in an absolute sense to 16,835, but they just did not grow as quickly as the rest of the workforce. She said that some of the variability can be attributed to regional changes. Arizona, for instance, has a workforce rich with veterans and Latinos, but the state experienced some “job turmoil” in the last few years. SolarCity’s Rive said he did not believe that the flat growth trend was true for SolarCity: “we’ve got a really aggressive veterans hiring program.”
With one in five employers reporting that it is “very difficult” to find qualified employees, the labor demand is there, and so these imbalances seem easily addressed.
Last year, President Obama announced a new program aimed at providing solar training to veterans, called “Solar Ready Vets.” Last week the initiative began in its eighth installation at Fort Drum, New York.
The census measures employment in the time period preceding November 2015, and uses company surveys, growth trends, and extrapolations similar to those used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to arrive at its totals. It includes all direct solar company jobs and some indirect solar-focused positions. This ranges from installation to sales, finance to R&D.
The report said its data “is derived from a statistically valid sampling and survey that went to nearly 400,000 establishments throughout the nation.”
Rive said that SolarCity added over 6,000 jobs over the last year, bringing the total to around 15,000. “This year we want to add almost as many,” he said.
Regional data is not available in the census released Tuesday; Luecke said that data would be available in February.
2016 looks to be big year for the solar industry after Congress extended the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC). Luecke told ThinkProgress that the fight over the ITC had made solar businesses “very cautious about their hiring plans,” though the certainty going forward could boost hiring and installation projections through 2016 and beyond.
However some states, such as Nevada, enacted policies that would make electricity for solar households more expensive, which cannot help but influence solar industry hiring. “These jobs can be lost if you have a person who doesn’t look at the future and only looks at supporting the monopolies of the utilities,” Rive said.
The fights over solar fees, taxes, and net metering in Nevada and Arizona — states that could be leading the nation in solar power production — have led to layoffs.
“In December, the Nevada PUC decided to kill solar in the state,” Rive said. “There’s probably about 5-6 thousand solar jobs in the state, and most of those jobs are going to get laid off. We just laid off 550 people in Nevada. At the stroke of a pen, three people can decide the fates of millions. We’re going to fight it — we think it was unethical.”
As demand for solar rises, and these companies get more efficient at production and installation, what does that mean for job numbers?
“In 2013 it used to take two days to install one system,” Rive said. “In 2015, we were a little less than one system per day — efficiency has essentially doubled. I don’t think we’ll have that kind of leapfrog again but we could get close to 1.2 systems per day.” Rive explained how the 2013 change was due to some important technology: the company’s acquisition of Zep Solar, which simplifies the mounting of the panels on the rooftop.
Luecke said that the industry used to see a more direct relationship between installed capacity and jobs even as companies were getting more efficient. In 2012, it took 19 people to install a megawatt of solar power; that number is now 15, and Luecke expects the trend to continue as crews get more and more efficient and competent. “We’re going to have the ability to install more, and more cheaply.”