Solar energy is ballooning across the United States with California and Massachusetts leading the way, according to a Solar Foundation report unveiled Wednesday.
The U.S. solar industry now employs slightly over 200,000 workers, representing a growth of 20 percent since November of 2014. What’s more, last year the industry added workers at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy.
“We are seeing solar in Arkansas, Virginia, Kentucky, all over the place. Arkansas in fact just broke ground on their first community solar project,” said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation.
The sixth annual report is based on nearly three months of data collection and evaluated figures of 19,000 companies. It’s also more detailed than it has ever been, as it now has solar job data for every state and federal congressional district. “Solar jobs is just a metric, but it’s an important metric. It basically serves as a barometer for understanding whether and where policies are working,” Luecke told ThinkProgress.
California has five times more solar jobs than Massachusetts, the second highest ranking state. That’s not surprising to Luecke, “but for the first time Massachusetts hit the 15,000 mark. Between the two of them they have 50 percent of all the solar jobs.”
California — which last year implemented a law requiring utilities to get 50 percent of their energy from renewables by 2030 — not only maintained its leadership position; it also created over 20,000 solar jobs. Meanwhile, Nevada, Florida, Maryland, Tennessee, Oregon, Michigan, and Utah are among the top 20 solar jobs states growing by 30 percent or more.
“The economy has done very well over the last couple years, but the solar industry is doing better,” Luecke said, “and for a technology that makes up only one percent of the overall energy mix, I think it’s really surprising.” She noted however that some 15 states shed workers in 2015, and that coal-dependent states like Wyoming, Montana and West Virginia rank the lowest in solar job creation.
Still, solar companies expect to expand nearly 15 percent this year, and have as much as 240,000 solar workers. According to the report, that job growth is 13 times faster than the U.S. workforce as a whole. The exponential growth of solar energy is happening as coal use declined 25 percent in the United States since 2005. Moreover, solar technology is becoming cheaper. Since 2010, U.S. average installation costs declined 35 percent for residential use, and 67 percent for utility-scale installation.
“We are seeing utility scale contracts in places like Texas and Nevada that blow away anything that even these rock bottom natural gas prices can meet,” said Amit Ronen, director of the George Washington University Solar Institute.
That is happening partly because most patents in renewable energy are from the 1970s, so now they’re off-patent. Barriers for entry are lower than ever as companies can innovate on free patents, all while many states use renewable energy standards. The industry now benefits from a federal tax incentive, too. Last year Congress approved multiyear tax credits for renewable energy that may incentivize and create the stability that the industry was lacking in the past.
Yet the solar industry has challenges ahead, as some states like Nevada and Arizona debate net metering policies allowing solar energy system owners to sell excess power back to the utility. In most states, customers can sell the excess power back to the utility at the retail electricity rate. For other states like Hawaii and Nevada, excess power is credited at a lower wholesale rate, decreasing investment return on solar installations.
And then there are issues related to storage and the outdated grid, which allows energy to flow only in one way. “Fundamentally, you want a grid that … is able to flow energy in both directions and different nodes,” Ronen said.
Congress, meanwhile, is aware of the needed improvements and has been working on an energy bill that could bring some solutions. This energy bill — now stalled in the Senate over an amendment related to Flint’s water crisis — presses for advanced grid technology, and calls for measures to allow more clean energy into the grid.
“There is a lot of excitement around the potential of solar,” said Luecke. “It’s starting to get a foothold in our nation’s energy landscape. I have no doubt the future of solar is very bright.”