Mike Blake/Reuters

The solar workforce has been expanding fast, and a shift in federal policy probably won’t change that.

Solar power accounts for less than one percent of the country’s electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The industry got off to a slow start. The creation of the first silicon solar cell in 1954 could have ushered in a golden age of clean energy; instead we got more coal, petroleum, and natural gas.  

But the U.S. is tapping into the plentiful resource of solar energy more and more.

In 2006, the federal government created the Solar Investment Tax Credit, a 30-percent credit for solar systems installed on both residential and commercial properties. This fed a surge of job creation across all 50 states, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), a trade group representing solar companies.

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Energy, jobs in solar now outstrip those in fossil-fuel generation. The DOE estimates that 374,000 Americans spend some time working with photovoltaic and concentrating solar power technologies; in contrast, there were 187,000 jobs in fossil-fuel generation in 2016.

The nonprofit Solar Foundation releases an annual solar jobs census, and by its most recent count (from the end of 2015), 209,000 people were employed in the field, up 20 percent from the year before—for the third year running.

“In 2015, or you could say the start of 2016, we saw that solar employment was growing 12 times faster than the overall U.S. workforce,” says Tom Kimbis, SEIA’s executive vice president. “That represents one out of every 83 jobs that were created [nationally] in 2015.”

A solar array near Palm Springs, California (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Kimbis says the increase in solar jobs is directly proportional to rising demand for solar technologies, which in turn can be explained by a 70 percent decrease in costs between 2010 and 2015.

“It’s a fairly simple formula,” he says. “Drive down costs. Drive up jobs.”

More than 95 percent of SEIA’s members are smaller companies, according to Kimbis, and California, predictably, has more solar jobs than any other state. But Massachusetts, New York, and Texas are also ripe markets.

Installation jobs are the most abundant, employing 120,000 people at the end of 2015, according to the Solar Foundation. They’re followed by jobs in manufacturing (30,000), sales and distribution (24,000), project development (22,000), and miscellaneous (12,000).

The good news for workers is that the barrier to entering the field is not necessarily high. Before answering a Craigslist posting for a job as a field service technician with a large solar company in Reno, Nevada, 33-year-old Pete Katin worked as a BMW mechanic and travel guide, and at a Lake Tahoe ski resort. He was always interested in renewable energy and built several of his own electric bicycles, but he didn’t have any special certifications before applying for the position.

The company Katin works for offers a hands-on learning experience. “They have a lot of proprietary systems and safety regulations,” he says. ”They take care of all that training.”

Certain positions may be open only to licensed electricians (depending on state rules) or require an engineering degree. For installers and field service technicians, though, previous roofing experience would be useful, but most of the necessary equipment and safety procedures are taught on the job, Katin says.

“If somebody was looking for a job and they had relatively [little] experience, there is a learning curve, but there is nothing they wouldn’t be able to pick up,” he says. After 18 months on the job, he is now an OSHA-certified PV installer. The Solar Foundation reports a median national wage in the installation sector of $21 per hour.

A large company may seem better able to invest in training new workers. But Sugar Hollow Solar outside of Asheville, North Carolina, which has 12 full-time employees and two part-time employees, pays its employees to become North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP)-certified on their own time.

They are not required to undergo this certification process, but it lends credibility to both the individual and the company, and employees receive a raise upon completion, says Sugar Hollow Solar’s co-founder Doug Ager. He adds that an increasing number of universities are offering classes in solar, which has been useful to his company.

An interactive solar career map outlines the education and skills required for 40 different careers in the industry and suggests career pathways. (Interstate Renewable Energy Council)

The Solar Foundation helms a network of solar training programs that is funded by the Department of Energy and co-managed by a roster of partners including SEIA, the American Association of Community Colleges, and the National Association of Workforce Boards. A previous iteration was run by a different nonprofit, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, which partnered with nearly 600 colleges and other institutions.

The Obama administration pledged in 2015 to train 75,000 people for careers in solar by 2020. It’s unclear whether that will continue to be a goal under a new administration helmed by a climate change denier. President Trump’s America First Energy Plan emphasizes oil, natural gas, and coal, and makes no mention of renewable energy. According to a report in The Hill, the new president’s draft budget could eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the Department of Energy, which funds solar workforce training through the agency’s SunShot Initiative.

“We are concerned about the administration’s policies toward the Department of Energy’s funding,” Kimbis says. But with the solar tax credit locked in through 2023 (barring legislation that could change that) and market forces driving down costs, federal policy may not stall the industry’s growth much, especially if momentum in states continues.

Kimbis says his group is optimistic that the probable incoming Secretary of Energy Rick Perry—whose home state of Texas is “loaded with renewable energy,” in Kimbis’ words—will realize that both maintaining funding for research, development, and training and supporting policies that remove barriers to solar-industry growth is a “formula for success.”

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