The Solar Foundation releases third annual National Solar Jobs Census
While most of the U.S. economy is struggling to create new jobs, the solar energy sector had a strong growth year in 2012, and there are reasons for optimism about solar jobs in 2013.
The solar energy industry has seen strong growth in recent years, and that’s good news for job seekers.
According to The Solar Foundation, which released its third annual National Solar Jobs Census in November, the solar energy sector added 13,872 workers in 2012 – a 13.2 percent increase in jobs compared to 2011.
The key factor driving jobs in the solar sector was the steep decline in solar panel component prices, which spurred consumer demand. Federal tax incentives for solar energy and state legislation requiring greater use of renewables also contributed to solar sector growth.
Here are three key takeaways of the The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census:
1. Solar Energy Job Growth is Expected to Continue
Solar employment is expected to grow by 17.2 percent over the next 12 months, according to The Solar Foundation. That represents roughly 20,000 new solar workers. The census found 44 percent of all solar firms expect to add solar employees next year.
Solar installers created the most jobs in the solar sector in 2012, and that is expected to continue in 2013. Most of that growth was created at small firms, which speaks to the job-creating power of small businesses. Still, the biggest gains in solar installer jobs have been seen at larger firms – not surprising given the maturation of this young industry.
2. Solar Workers Will Need to Develop a Specialized Skill Set
Of the 119,000 solar workers in the United States, about 90 percent spend 100 percent of their time working on solar. This suggests a highly specialized workforce is emerging, and that relatively little solar work is done by general contractors. Solar employers are unlikely to span multiple subsectors, so solar workers can expect with advanced solar skill sets will find continued opportunity.
3. Barriers to Solar Sector Growth Remain
The impressive growth in the solar industry hasn’t been without setbacks. The decline in solar module prices has had a negative impact on solar manufacturers. Tariffs imposed in spring 2012 against Chinese solar panel imports are expected to stabilize solar prices, but in many cases the damage has already been done.
The biggest threat to solar growth, according to the census, is general economic conditions. Nearly 25 percent of those surveyed cited the uncertain economy as their top concern. This is a slightly improved outlook from 2011, but it remains the top threat in the eyes of most solar employers.
Lack of consumer incentives and consumer awareness were ranked as the #2 and #3 barriers to growth. To that end, solar firms need to do a better job educating consumers about the solar options available to them; the many benefits of residential solar energy; and the federal, state, and local solar incentives that exist.
With strong growth in the solar energy sector expected to continue in 2013 and beyond, there’s reason for optimism. At a time when the U.S. economy is desperately looking for ways to create jobs, the solar industry offers an undeniable ray of hope.
About the author: Ryan McNeill is president of Renewable Energy Corporation, a Maryland solar panel installer serving Washington, D.C.; Maryland; and Northern Virginia.