Solar power plant at Nellis Air Force Base, Clark County, Nevada (Image: WikiMedia Commons)

Solar power plant at Nellis Air Force Base, Clark County, Nevada (Image: WikiMedia Commons)

An industry census taken by the Solar Foundation, an independent nonprofit, reports that the solar sector grew 21.8 percent in 2014. That’s 10 times faster than job growth for the entire U.S. economy (two percent over 2014), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The boom in solar jobs can be attributed to three key factors: Higher demand across the nation, federal tax credit and the industry’s greater need for “boots on the ground” relative to other energy types.

1) Higher Demand

As Planet Experts illustrated in our “Top 10 Solar Stories of 2014,” the industry enjoyed a slew of achievements and broken records last year. In May, GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association reported that solar accounted for three-quarters of all new energy generation in Q1 2014; the world’s largest solar plant opened in California (550 MW); and Utah’s government overturned the state’s unfair “sun tax.” Even Walmart became a clean energy proponent (though the Walton family most certainly did not).

As people realize that they can free themselves from energy dependence on the grid, more solar is coming to residential and commercial buildings. The conventional energy industry is fighting this movement tooth and claw, but it’s gaining momentum across the world. In September, the International Energy Agency reported that solar could become the world’s top electricity source by 2050.

2) Solar Investment Tax Credit

Aiding the spread of solar in the United States is the 30 percent solar investment tax credit (ITC), which was instituted by the federal government in 2006. It has been a boon to the budding solar sector and helped to keep the price of photovoltaic installations and deployments down as an incentive to prospective buyers. Two-thousand solar-related companies were surveyed on the ITC and 73 percent reported that it “significantly improved” their business.

Unfortunately, the ITC is set to expire in 2017, dropping from 30 percent to 10 percent, potentially causing solar demand to shrink. GTM Research says that the effect may not be so bad, though only three residential state markets – Hawaii, New York and Arizona – will retain solar generation costs below grid prices. Fourteen state markets will have generation prices “approximating grid prices,” they report, but 18 of the 20 state markets analyzed will have commercial prices below grid prices, and all commercial state markets will be “less than $0.01 per kilo-wtt hour away from grid parity.”

Overall, GTM “ expects PV to be an economically viable option for commercial customers in 2017, despite the step-down of the ITC from 30 percent to 10 percent.”

Installing Solar Panels

Workers installing solar panels (Source: WikiMedia Commons)

3) Boots on the Ground

In 2012, a University of Tennessee study reported that solar employs more people per megawatt-hour of electricity than any other energy type. According to SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive, that’s because there is still high demand for new installations, which is hands-on and labor intensive. In an interview with Mother Jones, Rive explained that SolarCity began as a small solar energy startup in 2006 with a “handful of employees.” Today, it employs over 9,000 in 65 offices nationwide.

It’s the same story across the industry. The Solar Foundation reports that solar industry employment has grown 86 percent in the last five years, with 80,000 domestic living-wage jobs added. As of November 2014, the industry employs 173,807 workers overall, and a survey of employers says that that number will increase by 20.9 percent (to 210,060 workers) in the near future.

And while Rive told Mother Jones that the growth will not last indefinitely – due to improving technology and the upcoming expiration of the ITC – solar’s momentum, coupled with last year’s boom in wind power and other renewable technologies, means that clean energy has established a formidable foothold in the global market.

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