by Rona Fried, Ph.D.
As exciting as the rise of solar energy is in its ability to provide the world with clean electricity, equally as compelling is the industry's ability to create well paying, life enhancing jobs.
Several studies come to same conclusion: solar - and renewable energy jobs in general - are much more impressive job creators than the fossil fuel industry, creating 10 times the jobs.
A widely quoted University of California (UC) report concludes we can expect 86,370 new energy jobs in the U.S. by 2020 if we continue with our current energy mix. But if 20 percent of our energy were to come from renewable sources, then 188,000 to 240,850 jobs could be created, depending on the proportion of wind, solar and biomass energy. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimates that 1.1 million jobs could be created in the next 10 years through investments in energy efficiency technology.
Solar photovoltaics (PV) creates more jobs per megawatt of capacity than any other energy technology - 20 manufacturing and 13 installation/maintenance jobs per installed megawatt, according to the UC report. The New Jersey Public Interest Research Group reports that if only 10 percent of the homes in the mid-atlantic states used some solar power, 25,390 jobs would be created, with a payroll of $364 million by 2014.
Another study, "The Job Creation Potential of Solar and Conservation: A Critical Evaluation," concludes that solar PV creates 55-80 times as many direct jobs as natural gas, and solar heating creates 2-8 times more direct jobs than conventional power plants.
And solar offers high paying manufacturing and installation jobs as well as jobs for highly skilled people such as engineers and managers, often in areas of the country struggling with higher unemployment.
Better still, solar jobs contribute to the local economy - PV companies site manufacturing facilities near thriving markets. States with strong solar programs like California are a magnet for PV companies, which not only contribute directly to the state's economy, but also make them net exporters; the companies export at least half the panels produced in-state.
Author of the UC report Daniel Kammen, head of UC Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory says, "Investing in clean energy technologies would both reduce our trade deficit and reestablish the U.S. as a leader in energy technology, the largest global industry today."
Many of the leading solar companies in the world are taking up residence in the U.S. as we become fertile ground for solar. From Germany-based SolarWorld putting down roots in California to Norway's REC Solar manufacturing silicon in Washington State, from legions of small solar installers to larger emerging U.S. companies like SunEdison - which in its three years of operations has created 150 jobs - news of companies hiring hundreds of people is becoming commonplace.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) certainly sees the potential, having been training members as solar installers for years now. Says Clifford Reisser, training director for the IBEW Southern New Jersey chapter, "The bottom line is, this means jobs for our members."
The union has solar systems installed on IBEW training centers in New York, California, New Jersey and other states to use for training. IBEW is so keen on solar that it attempted to stipulate in the California Million Roofs law that all solar installation jobs be union jobs. That would have locked out all the skilled non-union solar installers ý the leaders in the field ý and ended up preventing the law from passing (it has since passed in another form).
There's also a surge of PV certification programs and training programs of all kinds, including on-the-ground workshops from groups like Solar Energy International and a range of college and university programs. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners conducts a national certification program for PV practitioners; the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation certifies solar thermal practitioners.
"We're producing high-quality manufacturing jobs when others are moving out of the United States," says, Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. Thus far, the U.S. has about 20,000 solar jobs. It's not a big number yet, but growing at the widely forecast 35 percent a year, it's only the beginning.
Rona Fried, Ph.D. is President of SustainableBusiness.com, the online community for green business, which operates Green Dream Jobs and produces the sustainable investing newsletter, Progressive Investor.
This article first appeared in E Magazine, a SustainableBusiness.com Content Partner.