Report: 1 in 50 new U.S. jobs came from solar last year

Employment in the industry rose in 44 states and is expected to continue growing

Solar Census jobs
Credit: Freedom Solar Power

One out of every 50 new U.S. jobs last year came from the solar industry, with growth in that industry outpacing the overall U.S. economy by 17 times, according to a new report.

Overall, there were 260,077 solar workers in 2016, representing 2% of all new jobs, according to The Solar Foundation's Solar Jobs Census 2016.

solarcity solar power Lucas Mearian

SolarCity workers prepare to install panels on the rear of a home.

Solar employment increased by more than 51,000 workers, a 25% increase over 2015, according to the report. Solar industry employment has nearly tripled since the first National Solar Jobs Census was released in 2010 -- rising at least 20% annually for the past four years.

Along with growth in solar and other forms of renewables, energy storage is a rapidly growing industry, comprising 90,831 jobs -- of which 47,634 are focused on battery storage.

Battery storage can smooth the intermittent nature of solar and wind power, enabling a more consistent supply of energy. Lithium-ion and flow batteries can also be charged by solar energy or wind during the daytime for use at night. Similarly, storage systems can store solar or grid-provided energy when electricity rates are low and use it or sell it back to the grid when rates are high during peak business hours.

In a separate report issued last month by the U.S. Department of Energy, the number of U.S. jobs supported by the wind energy industry has cracked 100,000. The wind energy industry added another 25,000 jobs last year (over the previous year) and it now employs 102,000 people, the DOE stated.  

Solar jobs The Solar Foundation

The Solar Foundation projects there will be 27,000 new solar and energy storage jobs by 2021. The projection envisions 9,000 storage jobs and another 18,000 solar jobs that would not materialize without the added value of co-locating with storage, the report said.

Outside Reno, Nevada, Tesla's Gigafactory is now producing the first of what is expected to be 500,000 lithium-ion batteries a year.

Tesla's battery systems include a consumer-grade battery -- the Powerwall line -- that stores up to 7 kilowatt hours (kWh) of power and costs $3,000 and a commercial battery system called the Powerpack, which can can store 200kWh of power. Powerpacks can be daisy-chained to create enough storage for even small cities, Tesla has claimed. The full price of the Powerpack is available on Tesla's website and will combine the battery, inverters and cabling/site support hardware.

Powerpack Tesla Tesla Energy

A Powerpack battery station, which uses 10 modules daisychained together and controlled by a single power inverter system.

Another reason for the uptick in energy storage systems is decreasing costs.

One energy storage study claimed that prices for certain battery technologies will plunge by as much as 60% over the next five years.

"Renewable energy use translates to bottom-line benefits such as lower and more stable energy costs for GM in the long term," Rob Threlkeld, global manager of Renewable Energy at General Motors, said in a statement. "With more than 67 megawatts of solar housed at 24 facilities across the globe, we see the power of sunshine as an integral part of becoming a more sustainable company."

In 2016, the five states with the most solar jobs were California, Massachusetts, Texas, Nevada, and Florida.

Solar Job Census graphic The Solar Foundation

In California, solar jobs increased 32% year-over-year in 2016 -- from 75,598 in 2015 to 100,050 last year. Solar industry jobs now represent one of every 132 jobs in that state, the report claimed.

"California continues to lead all states in installed capacity, but its dominant market share is eroding as other states ramp up development," the report said. "For 2016, California is expected to represent 34% of the nation's installation activity, down from a 44% share in 2015."

Texas, which represents the third largest number of solar jobs in nation, grew its workforce by 34% in 2016. Last year, Texas added 2,366 solar industry workers to reach 9,396 jobs in the state, according to the National Solar Jobs Census. Solar jobs in Texas have increased 127% from 2013 to 2016.

Solar jobs The Solar Foundation

"Texas is seeing exciting solar industry growth, and the annual census confirms our jobs impact," Charlie Hemmeline, executive director of the Texas Solar Power Association (TSPA), said in a statement. "We're eager to dig deeper into detailed state results when they become available, which we expect to show more good news in the Texas solar job market, including a large growth in part-time solar workers."

Even states that weren't in the top five for solar power production saw a significant increase in jobs from that industry, according to the report. For example, South Carolina added more than 1,000 solar jobs in 2016. According to the report, the industry employed 1,764 in 2015; that number jumped to 2,772 in 2016, faster than any other state in the Southeast.

"Solar jobs are on the rise in South Carolina -- if you have spent time in the state recently, you can see the panels on roofs and hear people talk about increasing their energy security and independence by investing in solar," Gresham Barrett, former South Carolina congressman and founder of the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition, said in a statement. "We need to continue to promote free market principles to support a growing solar industry in the state, which is creating well-paying local jobs that cannot be outsourced."

Solar costs SEIA

This year's Solar Jobs Census was part of the U.S. Department of Energy's collection effort that included more than 500,000 telephone calls and more than 60,000 emails to energy companies in the U.S. between October and November.

The broader 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report found that "traditional energy and energy efficiency market sectors employ about 6.4 million Americans." That market increased in 2016 by just under 5%, adding over 300,000 net new jobs, roughly 14% of all jobs created in the country.

In 2016, 1.1 million employees worked in traditional coal, oil, and gas job-related fields, and almost 800,000 people worked in low carbon emission generation technologies, including renewables, nuclear, and advanced/low emission natural gas, according to the 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report.

Just under 374,000 employees work, in whole or in part, for solar firms, with more than 260,000 of them spending most of their time on solar, the report stated. Another  102,000 workers work at wind firms across the nation. Wind employment increased by 32%.

Solar jobs The Solar Foundation

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track jobs for the solar power industry.  However, the DOE in a report issued last month stated the industry added another 73,000 jobs last year.

The BLS categorizes solar industry workers in science, engineering, manufacturing, construction, and installation.

Scientists, for example, are involved in the research and development of new and more efficient materials, while engineers design new systems and improve existing technologies, according to the BLS.

Solar job growth in 2016 took place in all job sectors, including a 26% growth in manufacturing to 38,121 jobs nationwide, according to the Solar Jobs Census. Installation jobs increased by 14% to 137,133 jobs. Project development jobs increased by 53% to 34,400 jobs, and sales and distribution jobs increased by 32% to 32,147 jobs.

Solar jobs The Solar Foundation

Andrea Luecke, executive director of The Solar Foundation, said last year's "dramatic increase in solar jobs" was directly related to rapid decrease in the cost of solar panels and "unprecedented consumer demand for solar installations.

"More than ever, it's clear that solar energy is a low-cost, reliable, super-abundant American energy source that is driving economic growth, strengthening businesses, and making our cities smarter and more resilient," Luecke said.

Solar industry employers who were surveyed by the Solar Foundation expect to see total solar industry employment over the next year increase by 10% to 286,335 workers.

"As part of our commitment to sustainability and goal to be energy independent by 2020, IKEA is proud of its 44MW of solar arrays atop 90% of our U.S. locations," said Lars Petersson, IKEA's U.S. president, stated. "We are thrilled that our solar investment has helped contribute to rapid growth in the clean tech and renewable energy industry and the creation of quality jobs and a low-carbon society as a result."

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