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News Extra: US solar industry employment breaks quarter-million mark

01 March 2017

US 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. The Solar Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit organisation, said in its annual report that one out of every 50 new US jobs last year was in the solar industry, with total employment now at 260,000 across the sector.

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The 2016 figure was 25% up on the previous year, and the biggest gain since the group first compiled data in 2010.

According to Bloomberg, companies such as SunPower Corp, Sunrun and Canadian Solar are all hiring as they gear up for an expected 29% increase in installed capacity in 2017. This increase is largely driven by falling installation costs, making panels more cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

This is expected to continue despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to boost the coal industry, and will make clean energy a reliable source of employment, The Solar Foundation report said.

Nevertheless, installation growth in the US is slowing, with the number of solar jobs forecast to increase by 10% in 2017. Some utilities are scaling back after meeting state mandates, and demand has been threatened by changes in local policies. Total photovoltaic installations this year are expected to be 10.8 gigawatts (GW), after surging 72% to 12.4 GW in 2016, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The installed base of solar capacity will climb to 105 GW by 2021, up from about 38 GW in 2017, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

One element of uncertainty is whether the Trump administration will continue to support the industry - a federal tax credit worth 30% of the value of solar systems has been critical to the industry's growth.

The new president is a climate change sceptic who has expressed doubts about the role of clean energy in the US energy landscape.

But The Solar Foundation pointed out that jobs increased in 44 of 50 states, including all but one of the states that voted to elect Trump.

"The Trump administration wants jobs and the Trump administration is going to get jobs with solar," said the Solar Foundation President Andrea Luecke.

Luecke noted that the solar industry employs more people than the coal sector, which has 65,180 jobs, and the fossil fuel electric power sector, which boasts 114,351 workers, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Energy last month.

Though all 50 states have at least some solar workers, more than 100,000, or 38%, of the nation's solar jobs are in California, by far the industry's biggest state market. Solar jobs in California grew 32% last year.

Another report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and market analysis firm GTM Research published in December 2016 confirmed the positive trend, forecasting continued growth for the rest of the decade. 

The new report also assumed no major changes in the pace of wind and solar expansion over the next few years as a result of the presidential transition.

The new report found a surge in solar investment by utilities in the second half of 2016, possibly fuelled by uncertainty over the future of the federal solar investment tax credit, which was slated to terminate at the beginning of 2017.

Overall, the report predicted that more than 14 GW of solar capacity came online in 2016, an 88% increase over 2015. And it estimated that by 2020 the total should be up to 20 GW annually.

Provided there are no unexpected changes to the federal tax credit for solar, many experts predict that the industry will continue to expand, driven mainly by market forces and individual state policies.

“We do not anticipate the Trump presidency impacting negatively or positively the growth of solar,” said Tom Kimbis, interim president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “In fact, we think that no matter who’s in the White House, the solar industry is going to continue to grow tremendously.”

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