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The New Clean Energy Economy Invests in American Jobs

Employment opportunities in the energy sector are exploding. New enhanced exploration techniques have created a boom in the oil and gas fields. Jobs in this sector are projected to double by the end of the decade.

But perhaps even more promising is the boom in the clean energy field. This emerging market sector involves a number of new technologies and industries such as wind, smart grid, energy efficiency, renewable fuels, electric vehicles, natural gas vehicles, hybrids, public transportation, and more.

Solar energy is also a part of the clean energy market sector. And as the solar industry grows, so does its beneficial effect on society, such as greater energy independence, improved environmental enhancements, and positive economic impact on jobs.

Research studies and reports examining the clean energy economy over the past couple of years include analysis from a wide variety of sources: public, private and non-profit. A common theme in these studies points out that as home-grown sources of clean energy have become more cost-competitive and mainstream, they are spurring the creation of more jobs locally than traditional fossil fuels.

Despite the fact that these studies have varying estimates as to the future size of this new energy sector, one thing that is not in dispute is that clean energy generates more jobs per unit of energy delivered than fossil fuels. And in the case of solar PV, the average employment is several times more per unit of energy produced than jobs in coal, natural gas or even nuclear.

The solar industry experienced explosive job gains throughout the great recession. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, in 2012 there were more than 281 companies at work throughout the solar value chain in Arizona, employing 9,800 people. This was more than double the number of jobs in Arizona associated with the solar sector in 2011. By contrast, the coal industry has one mining operation and 16 power plant operations throughout Arizona. Coal is the largest source of electricity for Arizona consumers. But according to the Energy Information Administration, less than 1500 people are employed in coal mining and power plants in Arizona.

Make no mistake about it -- the clean economy is real. It's going to be the biggest job creating sector in the coming decades. Currently, there are approximately 120,000 full-time, permanent jobs nationwide related to solar and 1.2 million in the entire clean energy sector.

In July of 2011, the Brookings Institute, in collaboration with Batelle's Technology Partnership Practice, released the first comprehensive national clean economy study to quantify the clean job trends in the U.S. The study found 26 percent of all clean energy jobs are in manufacturing -- substantially greater than the nine percent of manufacturing jobs that comprise the whole of U.S. economy. Because manufacturing jobs require more specialized skills and pay higher salaries, the average clean energy worker earns 13 percent more overall than the average worker.

Community colleges, technical colleges, private and public universities recognize the jobs of the future are in the clean tech sector and are beginning to implement curriculum, programs and degrees for the sustainability professions and the clean economy.

Significant policy uncertainties, however, are threatening this economic boom in clean energy. Smart policy support is critical just as it has been throughout our history for the development of many of our modern industrial sectors, from the railroads to autos to the electric utilities and the internet. Government policy, money, expertise and coordination have contributed to the development of many beneficial industries; thus a strong argument can be made that helping the solar and the clean energy sector grow helps America prosper.

The major challenge facing us as these new technologies and industries emerge is whether or not our political leaders will continue to effect policies that provide certainty for private investment in a clean energy future. There are concerns that negative political pressure from vested interest groups and their lobbyists may force politicians to pull the plug, thereby allowing solar and clean energy and its associated jobs to develop elsewhere.

As we celebrate Labor Day, we must ask ourselves: Will solar energy, born here in the USA, carry a "Made in China" label in the future? Or will we take a stand in support of American jobs and ingenuity in a new clean energy economy?

Jim Arwood
Communications Director
Arizona Solar Center
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