The debate over the costs and practicality of supporting solar industries has arisen (again) recently. Federal and state governments face budget deficits, calling into question several incentive programs that aim to reduce the costs of going solar. While some states have pledged to continue funding rebate programs, others, like Pennsylvania, have indicated they will allow such incentives to expire. Then there’s the rapid decline of Solyndra, which received a $528 million federal government loan months before filing for bankruptcy.
These developments come just prior to the recent release of the second annual Solar Jobs Census Report by The Solar Foundation, which found that the industry grew 6.8% last year, totaling just over 100,000 jobs. Critics are quick to make the case that solar cannot compete in a global economy, and government support of the US solar industry is pushing against the tide at the expense of taxpayers.
However, as the report outlines, only about 25% of the industry consists of labor-intensive manufacturing jobs on the front end of the supply chain. While this may be bad news for some (but not by any means all) module manufacturers in the US, there are plenty of solar jobs available right here at home. Aside from installation jobs, which make up roughly 50% of the workforce and obviously can’t be outsourced, the remaining 25% of solar jobs are in research, design, sales, and other financial services.
In reality, government incentive programs only indirectly subsidize most of these jobs. By making solar installations a little more affordable with rebates, SRECs, FITs, or grant programs, governments are providing opportunities for private investments in the labor- and non-labor intensive parts of the industry. Just look at the recent $75 million partnership struck between Rabobank and Sungevity, the latter of which provides financial and installation services to solar system owners. Or Google’s $75 million investment in Clean Power Finance, a company that facilitates the movement of capital between lenders, manufacturers, distributors, and system owners. Or read about recent loans awarded to solar tech design startup companies from Ben Franklin Technology Partners, an economic development firm. Without the opportunities created by government incentive programs that drive demand for solar, these investments (and the jobs they bring with them) might not have happened.
Communities make an investment one way or another in their energy sector, which supports the jobs required to keep pumping electricity into the grid. As long as our energy sectors run on fossil fuels, ratepayers will continue to support dirty jobs that require continuous labor-intensive (and environmentally damaging) processes. Once solar is installed, there are few jobs required to continuously generate electricity, making it more efficient in the long term. So the question related to energy sector jobs is: do we want to shift to an energy sector that will be more efficient in terms of work-hours per unit of electricity? If the answer is yes, governments should continue incentive programs that to date have encouraged investments that create a diversity of solar industry jobs.