President Barack Obama inspects an array of solar panels at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2009. Reuters / Jason Reed

As the size of this workforce grows, so too will its political influence.

In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made the case that job growth is once more on the rise. Nowhere is that more true than in the domestic solar energy industry, which grew nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy in 2015.

The solar industry expanded 20 percent over the previous year to employ a total of 209,000 people, according to a detailed census of solar jobs released this week by The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit. Those new solar opportunities amounted to a whopping 1.2 percent of all new jobs added to the U.S. economy last year.

From a jobs perspective, the real selling point is that these are inherently local jobs that pay above the average national wage with an opportunity for mobility without significant amounts of training or education,” The Solar Foundation Executive Director Andrea Luecke writes in an email.

The new data paint a picture of a headstrong industry sprinting forward, perhaps not sustainably so. More and more managers are reporting that it’s hard to find qualified applicants; overall, 24.2 percent of employers said it was “very difficult,” according to the census report. Solar job growth is expected to slow a bit, rising 14.7 percent as opposed to the 20 percent growth of this past year. But, Luecke notes, that projection was made before Congress extended the investment tax credit through 2021 in a massive year-end compromise. That newfound policy certainty will likely drive a higher rate of growth than the original projection.

Installation jobs led the charge for solar industry growth. (The Solar Foundation)

The difficulty in finding qualified hires shows the need for increased supply of trained workers. That means expanding solar skills training programs and credentialing, two topics the nonprofit Interstate Renewable Energy Council has been working on for decades. IREC President and CEO Jane Weissman tells CityLab the demand for qualified workers is a sign of the industry’s maturation.

“It used to be one person did it all, from sales to installation to any sort of maintenance,” Weissman says. “That’s just not true any more. You have such occupational differentiation because the market has grown.”

To fill those new roles, IREC works with solar companies to find out what skills they’re seeking and then creates training resources around those areas. They administrate the Department of Energy-funded Solar Industry Training Network, which has taught 1,000 certified instructors and 30,000 workers, including many veterans. Solar companies may also benefit from a virtuous cycle: the more the industry grows, the more workers will hear about solar jobs, the more people will train and apply for those jobs.

There are fewer jobs in utility-scale installation, partly because it’s more cost-effective. (The Solar Foundation)

Rooftop installations drove much of the growth this year. Household projects accounted for 63 percent of the industry’s jobs, with 15 percent of the workforce tackling commercial projects and 22 percent building utility-scale installations. That points to an interesting disjoint in the way the industry operates: the type of solar installation that replaces the most greenhouse gas emissions represents a smaller share of the solar workforce. The report says this is because utility-scale projects are less labor-intensive.

A new power is rising

Some observers have interpreted this data as saying that “there are now more solar jobs in America than oil jobs,” as The Huffington Post put it, but that’s jumping the gun by several years at least. Solar jobs now exceed the subset of jobs classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as oil and gas extraction (184,500 as of December), but there are many more jobs dedicated to working with those fuels. Refining and manufacturing with oil, for instance, accounts for another 115,000 workers. And then there are all those gas stations out there. But, as The Solar Foundation’s report points out, solar jobs are increasing faster than oil and gas extraction jobs, so they’re closing the gap.

Solar jobs already exceed coal-mining employment, which the paper cites at about 68,000 (the BLS pegged it at 73,830 in May 2014). That comparison is a bit misleading, because the coal industry also supports workers who ship the stuff and operate the plants that ignite it. In any case, King Coal’s prestige has slipped—coal production dropped another 10 percent in 2015—and a more geographically dispersed industry is edging in on his domain. The new solar jobs won’t necessarily be available to the coal workers they are displacing, though, so the government will need proactive jobs training to avoid a surge of unemployment in the coal strongholds of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Political support for solar energy is likely to grow as more community members adopt the technology. (The Solar Foundation)

Overall, though, the population of workers with a direct economic stake in the success of solar energy has reached the hundreds of thousands, and that size carries with it great political potential. Each of those new employees, not to mention their families and friends, now are more likely to vote for politicians who favor the expansion of renewable energy. The U.S. has steered clear of strong renewable energy policies for years thanks to the political influence of the fossil fuel industries; now there’s a new kid on the block to fight for pro-solar governance.

Americans should expect the new economic heft of the solar industry to play an increasing role in promoting renewable energy policies. Even as unlikely an advocate as Republican Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio has begun discussing the economic benefits of this sector, The Washington Examiner reported. "Let's be number one in wind, let's be number one in solar,” Rubio recently told voters in New Hampshire. (He still opposes tax credits for the renewable energy, opting instead for an “even playing field” among energy industries.)

And the solar constituency extends even further than its 209,000 workers. “It’s not only those folks on the roof, but it’s the consumer in the kitchen signing the lease and their kids, or the school board under the roof that is supporting solar,” Weissman says. Once consumers get a taste for their solar panels and learn about producing their own energy, they don’t want laws or regulations that will take that away from them. This jobs report, then, isn’t just good news for the solar industry; it’s evidence of the power that clean energy increasingly wields in America.

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