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Solar industry clamors for workers as jobs climb by 25 percent

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 7, 2017

The solar industry employs more than 260,000 workers, and one in 50 new American jobs last year was in the industry, The Solar Foundation reports. That’s up 25 percent from 2015. (Jim Mone / Associated Press)
The solar industry employs more than 260,000 workers, and one in 50 new American jobs last year was in the industry, The Solar Foundation reports. That’s up 25 percent from 2015. (Jim Mone / Associated Press)
By Christopher Martin Bloomberg

U.S. solar-industry employment in 2016 grew at the fastest pace in at least seven years, with growth in all sectors including manufacturing, sales and installations, as demand for clean power swelled.

One out of every 50 new American jobs last year was in the solar industry, which now employs more than 260,000 workers, according to an annual report Tuesday from the Solar Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. That’s up 25 percent from 2015, and the biggest gain since the group first compiled the data in 2010.

Companies including SunPower Corp., Sunrun Inc. and Canadian Solar Inc. are all hiring as they gear up for an expected 29 percent increase in installed capacity this year. U.S. solar installation continues to climb as costs fall, making panels more cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

That’s expected to continue despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to boost the coal industry, and will make clean energy a reliable source of employment, said Andrea Luecke, executive director of the Solar Foundation.

“These are well-paying, family sustaining jobs with low barriers to entry,” Luecke said in an interview.

Still, installation growth in the U.S. is slowing. Some utilities are scaling back after meeting state mandates, and consumer rooftop demand has been threatened by changes in local policies. Total photovoltaic installations this year are expected to be 10.8 gigawatts, after surging 72 percent to 12.4 gigawatts in 2016, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The number of solar jobs will increase by 10 percent in 2017, Luecke said.

The median wage for a solar installation job was $26 an hour last year, according to the report. The jobs census defines solar workers as those who spend at least half their time on solar-related work.

Solar workers will be busy over the next four years. According to New Energy Finance, the installed base of solar capacity will climb to 105 gigawatts by 2021, up from about 38 gigawatts today.

“It’s about energy security, national security and it’s a hedge against higher fuel costs,” Luecke said.

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