Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, April 6, 7 or 8
However, entrepreneurs beyond fossil-fuel folks have long recognized solar power as the non-polluting, reliable energy source that also helps fight climate change, and more efficient solar systems plus decreasing costs have contributed to dramatic good news: Solar energy companies now employ more workers than any other energy industry – including coal, oil and natural gas combined. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Energy's second annual “U.S. Energy and Employment Report” released days before the Inauguration started snuffing out most news that wasn’t about the White House, Russia, false claims and bizarre tweets.
According to the report, solar – both photovoltaic (small-scale) and concentrated (large-scale solar-power “plants”) – employed almost 374,000 workers in 2016, a one-year increase of 25 percent. Those 374,000 workers represent 43 percent of the entire labor force in the Department of Energy’s Electric Power Generation sector. The fossil-fuels sector trails with about half that (22 percent –187,117 workers) throughout coal, oil and natural-gas generation.
Illinois is faring well, too, as the state’s solar jobs increased to 3,718 workers last year, an increase of 6.7 percent from 2015. That’s according to a report released last week by the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing solar energy use worldwide – a sustainable resource the group calls “the world’s most abundant energy source.”
Those numbers rank Illinois No. 17 in the country for solar jobs, and employment numbers are expected to grow between 5 percent and 7 percent this year.
(Although the foundation previously released six annual reports, the newest report is the first paid by the Department of Energy. One fears it’ll be the last, given new priorities in Washington.)
Meanwhile, the government’s own “U.S. Energy and Employment Report” was released just hours before President Trump signed an executive order to start reversing the Clean Power Plan. That policy, part of former President Obama's efforts on climate change, would’ve required utilities to cut power plants’ carbon-dioxide emissions and to use more renewable energy sources such as solar power.
That’s in question now, but not in doubt is the progress made by solar advocates.
“Proportionally, solar employment accounts for the largest share of workers in the Electric Power Generation sector,” said the energy/employment report. “This is largely due to the construction related to the significant buildout of new solar generation capacity.”
Nationally, the reason behind this growth in the solar sector is due to technological advances, especially the high-capacity additions in both distributed and utility-scale photovoltaic solar, the report said. From consumers’ perspective, solar is becoming the cheapest form of electricity production in the world, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance data.
Construction and installation work represented the biggest share of solar jobs, with almost 4 in 10 workers, followed by workers in solar wholesale trade, manufacturing and professional services.
In Illinois, there was a different positive development. A controversial law passed in December by the legislature and signed by Gov. Rauner (who can’t agree on much) contains provisions that could help solar as well as the more problematic nuclear industry targeted for relief in the bill.
The massive Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act, which takes effect in June, passed in part to help subsidize two of Exelon's financially struggling nuclear power plants in Clinton and the Quad Cities. However, to gain support from lawmakers concerned about nuclear power, the bill added sweeteners, including promised investments for solar, possibilities for helping community solar projects, a program that provides funding for solar in low-income areas, and a job training program.
However it happened, Illinois’ law starting this summer could make the Prairie State a leader in solar.
It’s about time.
Nine years ago, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords told a Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, “Solar power is a big idea whose time has come. In the coming years, we will face critical decisions on how to address climate change, reduce our dependence on foreign energy, and boost our economic competitiveness. The beauty of solar power is that it offers an elegant solution to all three of these challenges.”