Solar Job Census

In order to counter the negative spin and give people a true sense of what’s happening in the solar industry; we conduct research promoting balanced discourse. To illustrate, we recently announced some sensational (though not sensationalistic) news. According to our third annual National Solar Jobs Census, released on November 14th, the U.S. solar industry currently accounts for 119,016 American jobs. This figure represents 13.2 percent employment growth since we last counted jobs in Census 2011, and shows that the solar industry grew nearly six times faster than the overall economy, in which (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) employment grew by only 2.3 percent during the same period. To put these figures into perspective, one out of every 230 jobs created in the United States this past year was in the solar industry.

Although the industry has experienced steady, consistent growth since we first started tracking solar jobs in 2010, Census 2012 found that solar jobs did not grow uniformly across all subsectors over the past 12 months:

Installation: 17.5% growth (8,521 additional jobs)
Sales and Distribution: 23.1% growth (3,005 additional jobs)
Manufacturing: 26.1% decline (8,199 fewer jobs)
*Other: 46.1% growth (2,557 additional jobs)

*(research and development, finance, law, and other firms providing ancillary services)

As you can see, manufacturing is the only industry subsector that did not grow last year. However, employment gains in the installation subsector were more than enough to offset this loss, helping the industry achieve an overall net positive job growth. Furthermore, solar companies expect to continue this growth next year by 17.2 percent, including a 9 percent increase in manufacturing employment.

Regarding the loss of solar manufacturing jobs, our findings come as no surprise, especially given the highly publicized bankruptcies of a few large solar manufacturers. Nevertheless, it is imperative that policymakers and the general public understand the overarching story. The solar industry is growing tremendously, particularly in those sectors that cannot be exported or outsourced, such as installation and sales. A major reason behind this growth is the installation boom that has been fueled by the dramatically falling cost of solar panels over the last several years. In fact, the average selling price of crystalline silicon photovoltaic panels fell by 44% since last year. This is cause for celebration and an indicator of a maturing and increasingly competitive market. Unfortunately, the media’s focus on the failures of a few cell and panel manufacturers has obscured the success of the rest of the solar industry – especially those companies operating further downstream. Despite an overall decline in manufacturing jobs this past year, many manufacturers are doing fine. For example, Unirac, which makes mounting equipment for rooftop and ground-mounted systems, increased its internal workforce by 15 percent this past year, and ERCAM Tracker, LLC is set to establish a dual-axis solar tracker manufacturing facility in San Antonio, Texas, creating 130 permanent jobs. And not all panel manufacturers are hurting either: the expansion of companies such as Solarzentrum, which plans to expand its module production facility (and add 140 jobs in the process), suggests that there is still hope for some American solar panel manufacturers.

According to Census 2012, employers attribute a number of factors to the growth of the solar workforce. Nearly one-third of our survey respondents reported that the “continued decline in component prices” was the primary driver of employment growth. Employers also cited federal tax incentives and state legislation (e.g., Renewable Portfolio Standards or the authorization of third-party ownership) as factors contributing to their ability to hire more workers. For local governments, this feedback demonstrates the effectiveness of demand-based strategies in promoting and establishing local solar markets. Smart and consistent policies adopted by local governments help foster a favorable business climate for employers, encouraging them to invest their money and expand their employment in the community. These policies can include a combination of economic development incentives, tax waivers, and the development of customer assistance and awareness programs.

St. Lucie County, Florida is a prime example of what local governments can do to help attract and fuel the solar industry. In 2011, St. Lucie County partnered with local financial institutions and community leaders to launch SELF, the Solar and Energy Loan Fund. SELF operates a revolving loan program offering free home energy audits and low-interest financing to local homeowners for clean energy upgrades, and has provided over 100 loans and more than 550 energy audits to St. Lucie County residents. On the opposite coast, the City of Portland caught the attention of SoloPower Inc. by offering an enterprise-zone tax abatement to the company for constructing its solar panel manufacturing factory within city limits, an offer slated to create 481 permanent jobs at an average salary of $51,000 and 261 temporary construction jobs with $15.7 million in wages during the plant’s construction. Finally, consider the City of Lexington, Virginia, which offered a 20-year exemption from the “machine tax” for solar-energy equipment, enabling Washington and Lee University to jumpstart its 444 KW solar energy project.

Time and again, our Census series has demonstrated the resilience of the solar industry, as well as its potential to grow and expand despite the sluggishness of the global economy. With the help of consistent, effective policies, this industry will continue to thrive, as it helps both satisfy our energy needs and preserve a healthy environment.

For more information on how your local government can take action to promote solar, check out the Department of Energy’s Solar Powering Your Community Guide, which is available – along with a wealth of materials containing best practices and programs for driving local solar demand – through the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Resource Center.