By Theresa Schempp
In 2016, more than 260,000 people worked in the U.S. solar industry. This is more than double the number of solar jobs in 2012, and that number is expected to increase to more than 360,000 workers by 2021, according to the Solar Foundation.
One of the top leaders in solar production and jobs is California -- no surprise given the sunny weather and forward-thinking energy policy. One reason for the heavy investment from the Golden State: The California Energy Commission and California Public Utilities Commission created the Go Solar California campaign to give people incentive to invest in solar energy.
“Our goal was to install 3,000 megawatts of solar energy systems on homes and businesses by 2016, which we are close to reaching now," said Terrie Prosper, director of news and public information for the California Public Utilities Commission.
With this push for new installations comes a hot market for solar jobs. According to the Solar Jobs Census from the Solar Foundation, California employs 100,050 people within the solar industry, almost 40 percent of all solar jobs in the U.S. Most of these jobs are located in Los Angeles and San Diego due to the number of installations on urban buildings and businesses.
Solar energy is harnessed usually through photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, which generate electricity. Silicon solar cells are wired together to form the panels, and when sunlight strikes the cells, the panels generate an electric current. Panels are connected to each other to form a PV array, which can cover the top of a building to as much as several acres of land.
In the U.S., nonrenewable resources -- led by natural gas -- are still the main source of energy used. Nationally, solar energy accounts for 0.6 percent of energy used, one of the lowest energy providers in the renewable energy sector. This is due to the price of solar panel installations being expensive when they first entered the market. But since 2007, the price of PV solar panels has dropped by more than 60 percent, making it cheap enough to compete with other energy sources for the same price.
To give people and businesses incentive to install solar panels and to make them more affordable, the California Solar Initiative (CSI) was created in 2007.
“The CSI is a solar rebate program that funds new solar projects in homes and businesses,” Prosper said. “This program offsets the costs of installing both PV panels and thermal generating panels so that it is affordable for the average resident.”
In recent years, residential solar panel installations have been the fastest growing segment of the market. With installation costs at an all-time low, more people are installing solar panels to their houses. While residential installations have increased, the utility-scale segment -- including large businesses -- is still the largest consumer, installing 72 percent of all solar capacity in 2016.
Schools are one of the top investors in solar panel installation. According to the Solar Foundation, the top states in terms of K-12 school installations are California, New Jersey, Illinois, Arizona and Massachusetts.
While California represents a majority of solar jobs and production in the U.S., other states have the potential to generate both jobs and solar energy. Many assume that in order to generate enough energy, solar panels can only be installed in dry, sunny states. But it has been proven that virtually any state in the U.S. can produce usable solar energy. California currently produces 17,084 megawatts of solar electricity from PV panels, according to the Solar Foundation. The second state to produce the most megawatts is North Carolina, which isn’t considered to have a dry and sunny climate. North Carolina produces 3,016 megawatts, and several other states such as New Jersey are high on the list for solar production and solar installations.
As solar installation prices drop and more people begin to invest in solar panels for their homes and businesses, the data reflect that solar jobs will continue to climb within the U.S. market.
drop in solar panel price fuels rapid industry growth
By Malena Khan
Steve Kolb, energy manager at Towson University, knows first-hand the power of solar.
In 2016, Towson installed roughly 4,000 solar modules across campus. Solar energy is now generating enough electricity to power the University Union, according to the university. The campus will require less energy from outside sources with the new solar panels.
“On very hot days, the panels will create 10 percent of the power for Towson University,” Kolb said.
Towson's investment in solar is part of a nationwide trend. With solar energy dominating the renewable energy industry, solar employment is also expected to increase. According to Avery Palmer, senior communications manager at The Solar Foundation, there were 260,077 solar jobs nationwide in 2016.
“The amount of solar jobs in 2016 reported by the National Solar Jobs Census represents a remarkable 25 percent growth from 2015,” Palmer said. “In fact, one out of every 50 new U.S. jobs last year were in the solar industry. What this means is that there’s never been a better time to launch a career in solar.”
The solar industry includes employment in the following sectors: installation, manufacturing, sales and distribution, and project development. Data from the National Solar Job Census show that installation has been the leading sector of employment in solar jobs from 2010-2017. According to Palmer, roughly half of all solar jobs are in the installation sector. Thanks to the rapidly declining cost of solar panels, solar energy has shown rapid growth.
According to data by the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, the solar industry received more than half of the global new investment in renewable energy in 2015. The investments included in this report are Government Research and Development funding, Private Investments, and Corporate Research, Development and Design funding.
“With respect to solar energy in particular, solar is an affordable, reliable way to keep the lights on for homes and businesses nationwide,” Palmer said. “Cities and towns across the country are encouraging solar energy growth as a way to boost their economy and generate new jobs.”
Added Palmer: “There are so many reasons for homes and businesses to go solar, from reducing pollution to saving money on their electricity bills. The reasons have grown even more compelling as solar becomes more affordable and widespread.”
One type of solar panel is called the photovoltaic system, also PV system or solar power system. This is a power system designed to supply usable solar power by means of photovoltaics.
The International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Program shows which country has the greatest amount of PV systems installed. China is dominating the solar power industry according to the report in 2015, followed by the United States. Other countries in the top five include Japan, India and the United Kingdom.
According to the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, solar energy set new investment records in 2015. From 2004 to 2015, Europe has had the greatest amount of new investments. Asia had the second greatest amount of new investment, followed by the United States. The noticeable trend in the data is the rapid decline in the new investments in Europe and the increase of new investments in China that began in 2013 and continued throughout 2016.
“Here in the United States, it’s clear that solar energy is a leading source of new jobs and an engine of economic growth,” Palmer said. “We’re confident that the solar energy success story is only beginning.”
Solar grows on many fronts
By Mary Kate Biser
Solar is a hot commodity when it comes to investment and job growth. California and Nevada, which are among the sunniest states in the US, produce the largest amounts of energy from the sun by using solar panels, according to the The Solar Foundation's National Solar Jobs Census.
This map illustrates data collected by the National Solar Jobs Census in 2015 and 2016. Results show that 18 out of the 50 states in the US had a growth rate higher than 50 percent from 2015-2016.
Massachusetts is the state with the highest ratio of solar jobs per capita in 2015-2016. A $30 million residential solar loan program that made it easier for homeowners to finance solar electric projects is one of the reasons why the state has seen such growth.
California and other warm-weather states see increasing demand for solar energy in summer months.
Maryland also made the list.
“The support of the federal government has a lot to do with tax breaks for installing solar panels,” said Steve Kolb, Towson University's energy manager. “Solar energy is very important for the future and for the growth of solar jobs, these jobs depend on the federal government. Yes, we see solar energy jobs growing in Maryland. In Maryland, and many other states, tax breaks create jobs for solar energy companies, and this is what stimulates solar employment growth,”
Arizona, California and Nevada are the top three states with the most sun.
Texas, which is the second windiest state in the US, is the state with the most wind energy projects. California is the second sunniest state, and also the third most wind energy projects. California produces enormous amounts of solar energy from the sun, and large masses of wind energy as well.
“We’re supportive of wind and other renewable energy sources,” said Avery Palmer, senior communications manager at The Solar Foundation.
The states with the most solar jobs for 2015 and 2016 also had the highest percent of solar workers when compared to their overall workforce.
Above is a chart of the top eight countries in the world that produce the most solar energy (2015). A megawatt is the unit which is used to measure the amount of energy that each person uses. Germany produces the most solar energy, then China, Japan, Italy and the United States.
Mary Kate Biser