As solar power keeps getting cheaper—and more and more of it is built as a result—the industry is also an increasingly important source of new jobs, adding workers at a rate nearly 17 times faster than the overall economy. Twice as many people now work in solar than in the coal industry, according to a new survey from the nonprofit Solar Foundation.
While 40 coal plants were retired in the U.S. in 2016, and no new coal plants were built, the solar industry broke records for new installations, with 14,000 megawatts of new installed power. Many of the jobs came from constructing massive solar plants like the Springbok Solar Farm, which is being built on a site that sprawls over 12 miles in the Mojave Desert.
"It's very labor-intensive," Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, tells Co.Exist. "It takes hundreds of people to work on some of these large-scale systems, and it takes about 18 months for the systems to go from start to finish." In some cases, a traveling crew moves from site to site. Other companies focus on hiring local workers, and while large solar farms may be located only in the sunniest places, rooftop solar is creating more construction jobs everywhere.
Sales, manufacturing, and other solar industry jobs are also growing throughout the country. Overall, 44 of 50 states doubled (or more than doubled) the number of solar jobs in 2016, according to the report. One in 50 new jobs in the country last year was in solar.
Many of the jobs are also accessible to people who might otherwise struggle to find well-paying jobs. An entry-level worker without a degree can conceivably double their salary within a year, from $10-$12 an hour for simple manual labor to $20-$23 an hour. The median wage posted for solar installer jobs in 2016 was $26 an hour.
"This is just an incredible example of the opportunities that exist for people that need these opportunities the most," Luecke says. "You don't see that level of mobility within retail, or food service, or hospitality, or janitorial, which is where most people who don't have higher education are forced to look. The solar industry does provide a new option."
The solar industry is more labor intensive than other types of energy. Even though it still represents only a tiny fraction of energy production overall—less than 2%—it already has more workers than natural gas, coal, wind, and nuclear. The use of robots and other automation may make solar work more efficient, but jobs will still continue to grow.
By 2021, by some calculations, the U.S. may have 100 gigawatts of installed capacity; right now, we're close to 39 gigawatts. One national study estimated that the country had the capacity for two terawatts of solar power—or 200,000 gigawatts.
"We haven't even come close to scratching the surface," Luecke says. "We still are only 1.3% of the overall electricity mix. I think the rooftops in our land can support a tremendous amount of more solar development."
Policies can help those jobs grow faster, from the federal investment tax credit to state requirements for solar power or city laws such as San Francisco's new law requiring newly-constructed buildings to include solar power.
"If the federal government is not going to be taking fast action on and leadership on energy, then you're just going to see so much more happening in state and local levels, because they recognize that solar not only is good for the environment, but it's an economic driver in terms of jobs," Luecke says. "And then, of course, it also provides them with a hedge against any sort of grid vulnerability, and allows for more consumer choice, and more energy independence."
Solar also has wide support, regardless of political persuasion. 83% of conservative Republicans support installing more solar, and 97% of liberal Democrats.