The solar power industry in the United States is booming as more and more customers turn to the energy savings and environmental benefits of clean energy and more and more entrepreneurs set up innovative companies in the renewables industry. The Solar Foundation released its annual Solar Census today, showing that the solar workforce grew by more than 20% for the third straight year. The solar industry added jobs at a rate about twelve times that of the rest of the economy. According to the census, the industry added 35,000 jobs over the year ending in November 2015, representing more new jobs than the oil and gas extraction and pipeline sectors combined and bringing the total number of Americans employed in the solar industry to around 209,000, a total larger than total coal industry employment.
The vast majority of the additional jobs – some 83% – were new positions, representing the continued rapid growth in the burgeoning solar industry and an opportunity to the millions of Americans still out of work. And, crucially at a time of widening inequality when the majority of the jobs added in the recovery from the 2008 crash have been low-paying, wages in the solar industry are relatively high and continue to be competitive, while there is a continued demand for highly-skilled workers as the industry continues to expand. President Obama has aimed to fill this demand for labor with a program called Solar Ready Vets, which trains military veterans to prepare them for skilled and well-paying work in the solar industry.
Despite the obvious environmental – and by extension moral – benefits of solar and other renewable energies at a time when the devastating effects of climate change are being increasingly felt across the world, Republicans and their big-money backers in the oil and coal industries continue to oppose renewable energy. With common sense clearly being wasted on many Republicans as an argument in favor of solar, one might hope that the supposedly business-minded Republicans could at least endorse solar energy on the merits of its astounding job growth.
Nonetheless, some staunch conservatives in Congress have continue to do everything possible to prevent the growth of the solar industry, putting up a fight to block the extension of the Solar Investment Tax Credit (SITC) that has been so beneficial to the industry. Although the SITC was ultimately passed, House Republicans tacked an end to the nation’s oil export ban onto the theoretically commonsense legislation.
Even more damaging, big dirty energy companies like Koch Industries have been pulling strings in statehouses across the country to overturn incentives for residents to switch to solar power. In Nevada, solar customers received a dramatic rate hike despite the fact that they actually give back more energy to the grid than they use after a public utilities commission panel voted to approve the increase; the panel was hand-selected by Republican governor Brian Sandoval, who allegedly has ties to NV Energy, the Berkshire-Hathaway corporation that is the main private utility in the state.
In Arizona, APS, the main energy provider, was granted permission by state regulators to charge a flat fee on solar users simply because they were no longer plugging into APS’ dirty energy, and the state’s once thriving solar industry has been decimated since. In Oklahoma, the staunchly Republican state legislature abandoned its supposed conservative principle of lower taxes to impose a new levy on solar power; the move came after a lobbying blitz by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is close to the Koch Brothers. The Koch Brothers and their companions in the dirty energy industry have pumped millions into often disingenuous campaigns to impede the growth of solar energy across the country, proving themselves once again willing to sacrifice the good of the American people to make a quick buck by continuing to poison our planet.
Thankfully, even hypocritical Republican obstructionism seems unlikely to totally stop the growth of the solar industry, as the Solar Census confirms. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that by 2020 solar power production will quadruple to around 100 gigawatts annually, or about 5% of total U.S. energy production. Moreover, the industry will by then be creating some $30 billion in annual economic output and employ 440,000 people. Just this production, leaving aside the contributions of wind and other renewable energies, will offset some 100 million tons of carbon emissions, marking a dramatic win for the planet over the cynical manipulations of Big Oil and its Republican backers.
Colin Taylor is the editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.