China reaps benefits of U.S. solar innovation while American workers are left behind

The U.S. invented the solar cell, but China has 9 times as many solar jobs.

Chinese solar power workers in Wuhan, China on April 27, 2017. CREDIT: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Chinese solar power workers in Wuhan, China on April 27, 2017. CREDIT: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Total global employment in renewables surpassed 10 million jobs for the first time last year, according to the latest report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This soaring sector added more than 500,000 new jobs in 2017.

Solar power is the world’s largest employer, with nearly  3.4 million jobs, up 9 percent from last year, IRENA reports in its Renewable Energy and Jobs, Annual Review 2018.

China has twice as many solar power jobs as every other country combined.
China has twice as many solar power jobs as every other country combined.

Two thirds of those jobs (2.2 million) are in China, which saw a huge increase in solar employment of more than 200,000 in 2018.

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Meanwhile, U.S. solar jobs dropped by 10,000 last year to 250,000, thanks in large part to the market uncertainty created by President Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on imported solar panels.

So while the “first practical solar cell” was invented in the U.S. by Bell Laboratories in 1954, China now has 9 times as many solar jobs as we do. That solar jobs gap is expected to grow in the near term as Trump’s tariffs continue to slow the fast-growing industry here, even as China increases investment in solar.

In the long term, millions of jobs are at risk from the Trump administration’s long list of anti-clean energy policies — including its efforts to role back pollution standards for electric utilities, to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, and to defund renewables. The Trump Administration even tried to get federal regulators to raise consumer energy bills in order to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants.

Asia dominates global renewable energy employment.
Asia dominates global renewable energy employment.

Yet the IRENA report makes clear that renewable energy is already a leading job creator around the world, adding a half million new jobs last year.

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And with virtually every other country in the world apart from the U.S. currently pushing aggressive policies to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution, clean energy will remain one of the biggest new sources of sustainable high-wage employment in the world for decades to come.

Tens of millions of jobs are at stake in this global battle for clean energy dominance, but the Trump Administration wants to give up the fight.