The Rise and Rise of Solar Panel Related Jobs

Solar installation on a roof with workers

There is currently a boom underway for employment in the renewable energy sector worldwide, led by the U.S., where more than 769,000 people were employed in renewable energy in the US in 2015. These findings have just been published by the International Renewable Energy Agency in its latest Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review. In particular, this report and other sources confirm the sustained dramatic rise in solar panel related jobs.

This strong growth is also confirmed by the Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps, in its latest annual report America’s Clean Energy & Sustainability Jobs, which goes on to state that Solar employment opportunities are currently growing at a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy.

Bright Prospects for Solar Panel Jobs

Globally, over 8.1 million people were employed in the renewable energy sector in 2015, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), in its 2016 Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review. While the worldwide rate of renewable energy jobs growth slowed somewhat compared to previous years, the sector still enjoyed a 5% increase in global terms, moving in the opposite direction of shrinking employment in rest of the energy sector around the world.

The leading countries in renewable energy employment were China, Brazil, the United States, India, Japan and Germany. China alone saw 3.5 million jobs across the renewables sector in 2015, even taking into account the increased automation in its solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power manufacturing sectors. Meanwhile in the U.S., renewable energy jobs increased by around 6%, in sharp contrast to jobs in the in oil and gas extraction (and support activities), which fell by 18%.

In a further positive development, IRENA’s early research suggests that the distribution of jobs in renewable energy are more evenly balanced between genders than for the energy sector as a whole. Although gender-specific data is not readily available for the solar industry, IRENA surveyed 90 companies from more than 40 countries to compile its own assessment. Among the companies that responded, an average of 35% of the workforce are women. This is significant, given that women only make up 20-25% of the workforce in the energy industry overall.

The report summarizes global renewable energy employment on a geographical basis:

 Renewable Energy Employment in selected countries

Figure 1 – Renewable Energy Employment In Selected Countries And Regions

Not surprisingly, by far the highest number of solar panel jobs were created in China, with 1.7 million jobs in 2015. This is a direct consequence of China’s dominant lead in both PV panel manufacturing and solar panel installations. So although the rate of growth in China’s solar panel related jobs has levelled off, growth in percentage and absolute terms remains very healthy. Meanwhile in Japan, solar panel related jobs leaped ahead by 28% to 377,100 jobs in 2014, with attractive FiTs being seen as a key contributor.

In the United States, high rates of solar panel installations have led to record levels of new jobs being created. In contrast, solar PV employment in the European Union (EU) has fallen by 13% in 2014, mainly due to a decrease in manufacturing volume for the EU as a whole. In comparison, growth is increasing in India, for instance, which is now recognized as a major solar energy market. Solar panel manufacturing job growth has also been increasing in Malaysia and the Republic of Korea, and in solar panel installation in Pakistan.

The IRENA report also summarizes global renewable energy employment by technology type as follows, showing how the solar industry is the leading renewable energy sector by far globally when it comes to employment:

Renewable Energy Employment by Technology

Figure 2 – 2015 Renewable Energy Employment by Technology

Of the total 1.7 million solar jobs in China in 2015, 1.3 million were in manufacturing, 330,000 in installations, and 22,000 in operations and maintenance. Meanwhile, solar employment in the United States continued its rapid growth, rising by almost 22% in 2015 to reach a new high of 209,000. The Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps 2017 report on the Growth Of America’s Clean Energy & Sustainability Jobs reinforces the IRENA findings on solar panel related jobs in the U.S.

Perhaps the most significant takeaway is that solar power jobs in the U.S. grew 12 times as fast in 2015 as overall job creation in the U.S. economy. In addition, the number of U.S. solar related jobs surpassed those in oil and gas extraction (187,200) and coal mining (67,929) by significant margins. Of those U.S. solar jobs, most of them (194,200) are in solar PV, with a small remainder in solar heating/cooling (10,400) and solar thermal (4,200).

Installation sector accounts for 57% of these solar panel related jobs, with 15% in manufacturing and the remainder across other parts of the value chain. The U.S. residential market accounted for almost two thirds of all solar jobs in 2015, followed by 22% in the utility-scale segment, and 15% in commercial installations. In 2015, women accounted for 24% of the total 209,000 U.S. solar jobs, up from 19% in 2013. This is more than in the conventional energy industry, but still well below the 47% share of women in the U.S. economy as a whole. However, the proportion of women in the U.S. solar workforce is comparable to Germany and Spain, with 24% and 26%, respectively.

Key Drivers for Continued Growth in Solar Panel Jobs

Solar panel related jobs made up the largest share of renewable energy employment in 2015, with a total of 2.8 million jobs worldwide, an 11% rise from 2014. This was driven by the 20% worldwide increase in PV installations, which are in turn being supported significantly by government incentives and Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs). This support is an acknowledged significant factor in helping to boost momentum in the industry, alongside the energetic work of the solar industry itself. However, the solar industry is also driving hard to become the preferred option in its own right.

Read more:  CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) Explained

Perhaps most notably, solar panel production costs dropped 72% between 2010 and 2015. As a result, solar power is now becoming cost competitive with fossil-fuel-generated power in many markets. This has been a key factor in a tenfold expansion in solar power installations since 2010.

Looking further at the drivers for this global growth, three emerge as being of most importance:

  • Government investment incentives
  • National trade policies
  • Market demand in response to greater awareness

While government investment incentives continue to a recognized enabler of solar industry growth, trade policies bear mentioning. For example, countries such as India have supported local solar PV manufacturing industry through requirements for a home-grown industry, which should increase employment in the coming years. Others, such as the United States and the EU, have levied duties on solar panel imports from China. In response, Chinese manufacturers have reacted by siting some of their new facilities in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, the Republic of Korea, India, Brazil and the United States.

Overall, however, the continuing trend is for solar panel manufacturing employment to gravitate to Asian countries. Looking more closely at market forces, China is well worth examining, given the dominant position it occupies in the solar industry. Solar PV installations there rose in 2015 to a record level of 15 GW (more than 50% increase from the 9.5 GW installed in 2014). However, solar employment in China only increased 1% in 2015, to 1.65 million jobs. This slow growth has been attributed to three key factors:

  1. Increased automation in the Chinese solar panel manufacturing sector
  2. Excess stocks of solar panels from 2014
  3. Economies of scale, resulting from consolidation of manufacturers

While increased automation reduces manufacturing jobs, it also reduces costs, fueling increased sales and solar installation, leading to more solar panel jobs for installers. Crucially, those jobs are well paid, with the Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps reporting that average wages for solar workers are above the U.S. national median of $17.04 per hour, and that energy efficiency jobs pay almost $5,000 above the national median annual salary.

In addition, solar installation jobs and others in local solar companies, cannot be outsourced abroad. Many of these jobs are well suited to middle class, blue collar workers transitioning from other industries and don’t require a college or advanced degree. One of the most surprising findings of the EDF report is that 70% of the 2.2 million workers in the Energy Efficiency sector work for companies with 10 employees or fewer.

Because many jobs in energy efficiency and solar are in installation, maintenance and construction functions, these jobs cannot be outsourced and contribute significantly to the growth of local economies.

Longer-term Sustainability for Solar Panel Jobs

Over the past several decades, the United States and many other leading countries have been transitioning into more environmentally sustainable and energy efficient economies. As a result, energy efficiency and renewable energy have become more sought after, and have grown significantly.

In many cases, these sectors are growing much faster than the rest of the U.S. economy and are generating more jobs per dollar invested. As mentioned earlier, many of these jobs have higher than average wages and cannot be outsourced overseas. They also create local economic benefits and are widely available in markets across the U.S. For example, while jobs in solar and wind growing by more than 20% in 2015, oil and gas jobs fell by 18% as the fossil fuel industry struggled with low prices. Renewable energy now makes up 64% of new electricity generation capacity installed in the U.S. each year. Given the U.S. Congress’ extension of the federal Investment Tax Credit through 2021, the solar power industry is expected to enjoy continued fast growth. In addition, market forces are expected to continue to be a strong driver for the significant increase in the adoption of solar power. Much of this anticipated growth is likely to occur in the utility-scale market, which is less labor intensive than rooftop installations, so the emphasis in job creation could well shift in that direction.

Key references for this article:

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