Photo: Petr Kratochvil
On Tuesday, the Obama Administration launched a new initiative that will advance the President’s 2015 promise to teach 75,000 people marketable solar-industry related skills by 2020.
The Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative, via the Solar Training and Education for Professionals (STEP) budget, will provide $2.1 million for the new Solar Training Network program. The Solar Foundation will spearhead the initiative in collaboration with The American Association of Community Colleges, the National Association of Workforce Boards, GRID Alternatives, Florida Solar Energy Center, Solar Energy International and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“As the number of solar jobs increases dramatically each year, the Solar Training Network will help give job seekers the training opportunities they need, while helping employers gain access to qualified candidates,” Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director of The Solar Foundation, stated in a press release.
In recent years, the U.S. solar jobs market has been steadily increasing. According to The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2015 (SFNSJBC), job opportunities in the industry, which employs nearly 209,000 people, have grown by 123 percent since 2010. According to the census study, from 2014 to 2015, solar jobs made up 1.2 percent of job growth nationwide and outpaced employment in the rest of the economy by roughly twelvefold.
The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates the sun power sector will grow at an impressive 119 percent in 2016, which corresponds with the SFNSJBC’s estimate of 14.7 percent job growth this year.
Facing the Future
Despite its rapid growth, the industry faces some employment challenges that Solar Training Network plans to address.
“We’ve found there is insufficient information surrounding solar training practices, costs, and benefits,” Avery Palmer, Senior Communications Manager for The Solar Foundation, told Planet Experts. “This makes it more difficult for solar employers to find qualified employees.”
Under the Solar Training Network, Avery says The Solar Foundation and its partners “will assess the most crucial training and employment needs of the solar workforce and solar industry…identify geographic areas of highest demand for solar training and resource deployment,” and identify the cost and benefits associated with hiring workers at various levels of training.
As emissions standards increase and natural gas prices decrease, the coal industry is experiencing bankruptcy and employment losses. Could the Solar Training Network provide new job opportunities for unemployed coal workers?
“While the program is not geared specifically toward coal mining industry employees, it is an excellent resource for those job seekers to find both solar training and potential employers,” stated Palmer.
The solar sector prides itself on offering employees a living wage. According to the 2015 SFNSJBC, the majority of people working in the solar industry – 76 percent of which are male – maintain installation jobs. These job opportunities grew 24 percent between 2014 and 2015 and outpaced the rest of the sector by 3.8 percent that year.
As the SFNSJBC demonstrates, the solar industry has provided a substantial number of job opportunities in recent years, but can the industry maintain the rate of employment growth for the foreseeable future?
Solar and wind energy industries enjoy substantial government subsidies, which Bloomberg estimates amounted to $24 billion between 2008 and 2014. In the recently published Republican Platform, the GOP declared that, given the opportunity, it would end all renewable energy subsidies. That means that if Donald Trump becomes president, funding for programs like the Solar Training Network could end.
The Solar Foundation refused to comment on whether they believe uncertainty surrounding the upcoming election poses a threat to solar job growth and the solar industry.
Upcoming Challenges, Potential Victories
Regardless of who takes the White House next year, current federal tax rebates, which cover 30 percent of individual and industrial solar project costs, will be curtailed to 10 percent of the cost by 2019. In the absence of new renewable energy subsidies, these cutbacks will test the solar industry’s ability to turn a profit in the free market.
On the bright side, the cost of solar electricity has been rapidly dropping as technology increases sun-to-power conversion efficiency. Additionally, some of the world’s biggest energy investors, like Warren Buffet, are convinced that solar and other renewables are the future of electricity generation.
Lucky for The Solar Foundation and the rest of the industry, Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is predicted to succeed President Obama. Clinton’s website claims “the United States will have more than half a billion solar panels installed across the country” by the end of her potential first term, and the country “will generate enough clean renewable energy to power every home in America within ten years of Hillary Clinton taking office.”
Given the rampant growth in recent years and industry advancements (and barring a Trump presidency), the Solar Training Network will likely be one of many factors driving job growth in the clean energy sector.