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Jobs in a sustainable energy sector

Paul Kando

There is good news amidst much noise and posturing about American job creation: the quiet but solid growth of the solar industry. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's annual US Energy Employment Report released on January 13th, 6.4 million Americans now work in the energy sector, which added more than 300,000 net new jobs in 2016, or 14% of the nation's job growth. Fossil fuels account for only 22% of power generation employment, or 187,117 workers across all coal, oil and natural gas generation technologies. Wind power saw a 32% increase in employment since 2015, with 102,000 workers at wind farms across the nation.

Staff of One of Maine's Solar Companies
photo credit: Revision Energy

Solar employment accounts for by far the largest share of job growth in the electric power sector, where the U.S. solar workforce increased 25% in 2016, employing almost 374,000 workers in photovoltaic and concentrated solar power generation. 43% of the workforce is now solar. Construction and installation accounts for the largest share of solar jobs with almost four in ten workers, followed by solar wholesale trade, manufacturing and professional services. And the industry forecasts another 7% increase in employment in 2017. Solar is becoming the cheapest electricity production technology around the world, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Last year, for the first time, it out-performed fossil fuels on a large scale.

What accounts for this phenomenal solar growth? The U.S. has abundant solar and wind resources. And, according to NREL, only 0.6% of U.S. land will be needed to meet 100% of national electricity demand. With new inverter and information technologies, wind and solar can provide electric power traditionally supplied by conventional generation — enough to manage even a 60% wind and solar contribution. Germany and Denmark have had periods when wind, solar, hydro, and biomass met nearly 100% of their electricity needs. With careful planning, research shows, wind and solar can replace carbon-intensive base-loads without affecting reliability.  The world’s largest system operators agree: domestically and abroad, large parts of the energy economy are shifting to cleaner and increasingly affordable wind and solar generation.

Wind and solar power keep getting cheaper. Central US utilities are already purchasing wind power for as low as 2¢/kWh after the production tax credit, and even without that credit the cost of new wind resources is competitive with the annual fuel cost of existing natural gas combined cycle generation. Solar system prices have been declining 5-9% per year, more than 80% since 2009. US utilities have solar power contracts for under 4¢/kWh. Wind and solar systems are saving consumers money and are on the cusp of beating existing fuel-fired plants with their falling capital and operating costs. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) projects that it will likely be economical to achieve an energy mix with a 40-60% renewable contribution by 2050.

When it comes to middle class job creation, don’t listen to noises about borders, old jobs, tariffs and the like. The sun shines everywhere with new well paying jobs there for the taking.