Despite political promises, coal jobs are not coming back. Why? Because coal is significantly more expensive than natural gas and renewable energy, like wind and solar. In fact, solar is booming in America. GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) predict that America’s solar market will almost triple in size in the next five years. The main reason is cost. In 2008, the wholesale price of a solar panel was $4 per watt, but by 2016 it had fallen to $0.65 per watt. Today, there are 1.4 million solar arrays in the U.S. And, for every solar array installed, a team of solar workers is needed for the job.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2017 Energy and Employment Report, the solar industry now employs more people than the coal, oil and gas industries combined. Since 2010, the solar workforce has increased by 178%. In 2016 alone, the solar workforce grew by 25% and accounted for one of every 50 new jobs. These are good jobs. A 2017 study by The Solar Foundation of multiple prominent solar installers found that, within their first 6 to 12 months on the job, entry-level installers were likely to be promoted at least once, with an average increase in pay of 45% with each promotion. Solar installation jobs are also not at risk of being outsourced and typically don’t require a college degree. As general manager of Swinerton Renewable Energy, George Hershman, explained to Think Progress, “A great aspect of this business [solar installation] is that it isn’t an exclusionary trade. It’s a teachable job that can create opportunity for people and give them a skill.”
In this article, we’ll look at how two companies and a government program are bringing the benefits of solar to American workers and why community solar might accelerate the growth of solar jobs in America.
GRID Alternatives: Bringing the benefits of solar where it’s needed most
GRID Alternatives, a non-profit organization, provides solar panels to low-income communities, while offering solar installation training. GRID is funded through grants and donations, and relies mostly on volunteers to install their solar panels. Those who volunteer with GRID in turn receive solar installation training, making them qualified for entry-level solar jobs. With solar jobs paying a median wage of $26 an hour and with the sector expected to grow by 20% each year, there’s a real opportunity to generate steady jobs for those who have struggled to find work. GRID offers additional training programs, including Women in Solar and Troops to Solar, which, by 2016, had provided training to 26,000 people. In 2015, GRID partnered with Grand Valley Power to produce a community solar garden with exclusively low-income subscribers in Grand Valley, Colorado. The subscribers save on their monthly utility bills and, ultimately have more money to spend on other necessities, such as groceries, education and healthcare.
SEI: Turning fossil fuel workers toward solar
Solar Energy International (SEI), a renewable energy training organization, is retraining mining, oil and gas workers for solar jobs. To-date, SEI alone has retrained approximately 45,000 former fossil fuel workers. To put that in perspective, from the beginning of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016, almost 118,000 oil and gas jobs were eliminated in the U.S. These unemployed energy workers have, with little retraining, ideal skill-sets for the renewable energy sector. As Noel Wichmann, a former mine employee who has gone through SEI’s program, explained, “Solar is up and coming, and it is the future.” Today, Wichmann runs his own solar company. As we move away from damaging fossil fuels towards the brighter future of renewable energy, we need to support former mining, oil and gas workers in their own transition toward participating in a greener economy.
New York’s green-collar workforce
This past June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Clean Climate Careers initiative, which will support the growth of a renewable energy workforce in New York. By 2020, the initiative aims to have created 40,000 new, well-paid clean energy jobs. Cuomo has also dedicated $15 million to organizations in the clean energy industry who offer third-party professional training programs. New York aims to source 50% of its energy from renewables by 2030. To reach this goal, New York is scaling-up community solar, through the Shared Renewables Initiative, and building a clean energy workforce. A commitment to a renewable energy future also requires a commitment to the people who engineer, install and sell renewable energy. As the Empire State continues to support the fight against climate change, it will generate economic opportunities for New Yorkers.
Community solar supports American workers
Just as important as government mandates and worker retraining programs are the types of solar projects that get built. Community solar is about involving communities in the development of new solar projects. A subscriber to community solar doesn’t need to install panels. Instead, a subscriber commits to being a customer of the solar project and benefits from the clean power it generates. Navigant Research predicts that there will be 1.5 GW of community solar by 2020, which would be roughly equal to 6.9 million photovoltaic solar panels. By including low-income subscribers, community solar projects can provide economic relief to households by lowering their monthly utility bills. By allowing individuals to participate in large solar installations, more solar arrays get built, creating employment opportunities for workers being retrained to participate in the solar industry. Solar jobs are well-paid with low barriers to entry, which means they are accessible to those who really need the work. By supporting solar, we increase the need for solar jobs—really good jobs available to people regardless of their background, education or income-status.
A truly America first energy plan is one that creates jobs, supports a resilient economy, and protects people’s and the planet’s health. These are the benefits the clean energy revolution will bring to Americans. The only question then is: are you in?
Community solar is making solar energy accessible to more people than ever before. That means more solar jobs, greater savings for households, and stronger communities. Our Power is incredibly excited to support the growth of community solar and America’s green-collar workforce. We hope you’re excited too! Learn how you can participate in a community solar near you at www.ourpower.solar