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As Conventional Energy Companies Cut Back, Solar Jobs Surge

The low price of oil and the resultant reduction in spending by fossil fuel companies has allowed the solar energy industry to overtake the U.S. oil and gas industries, according to a new survey by The Solar Foundation (TSF). But the sharp growth in employment may not last forever.

On Jan. 12, TSF released its sixth annual Solar Jobs Census, which found that in 2015, for the third consecutive year, the work force in the solar energy industry grew in the United States, adding 35,052 jobs, or about 20 percent more than it had in 2014, to reach a total of 208,859. Solar had added 23,600 jobs in 2013 and 31,000 jobs in 2014, the survey said.

“Solar employment grew nearly 12 times faster than the national employment growth rate of 1.7 percent during the same period,” the report said.

Fully 83 percent of these jobs were for new positions, and 65 percent were for installation of solar power equipment. Solar came in third in 2015 behind competing power sources, wind and gas, but the TSF says its industry expects job growth in solar to keep growing as costs keep declining. Already, it said, the average price of solar power has dropped by more than $2 per watt over the past five years.

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This growth in employment is no accident, according to Andrea Luecke, TSF’s president and executive director. She told ThinkProgress that the industry “continues to create skilled well-paying jobs at a really fast clip.”

Evidently a very fast clip, says Lyndon Rive, a co-founder and CEO of Solar City of San Mateo, Calif. “It’s incredible,” he said. “The industry employs over 200,000 people – more than the coal industry.” Indeed, TSF’s survey found that solar’s installation sector alone in the United States employed 77 percent more people than the coal mining industry.

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TSF’s census measured employment in the solar power industry up to November 2015 and is based on surveys by individual companies and growth trends. Its survey reached “nearly 400,000 establishments throughout the nation.”

The survey was welcomed by political and business leaders, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who cited its “further evidence that promoting economic growth and fighting climate change can go hand-in-hand. The Solar Jobs Census helps fuel this progress by offering policymakers and investors the clean energy data they need to make informed decisions.”

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Hilda Solis, the former U.S. secretary of labor, agreed. “Solar is surging,” she said. “Renewable energy deployment is on track to transform our world, helping to lessen our reliance on coal and other polluting fossil fuels. … With wider solar adoption, thousands more high-quality jobs will be added to the economy that help propel us forward and advance our economic and environmental goals.”

But will employment in the solar power industry surge forever? Maybe not, according to SolarCity’s Rive.

“In 2013 it used to take two days to install one system,” Rive said. “In 2015, we were a little less than one system per day – efficiency has essentially doubled. I don’t think we’ll have that kind of leapfrog again, but we could get close to 1.2 systems per day.”

By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com

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