Reading in Between the Lines of the Solar Jobs Report

Ross Marchand

February 13, 2017

For pundits, lawmakers, and has-been presidential candidates, the phrase “green jobs” has long served as a magical mantra. Claims about the economic benefits of renewable subsidies are a dime-a-dozen, but do they hold up to scrutiny? The Solar Foundation’s 2016 Solar Jobs Census Report can shine some light on this question and help taxpayers see where all of their money is going. After combing through data collected by 91,000 energy establishments, the Foundation concludes that the number of solar jobs grew by 24.52 percent between 2015 and 2016. Absolute employment figures are low, however, meaning that some 50,000 new job positions will register as large percentage increases.

Additionally, the concentration of job growth over the past year has more to do with congressional brinkmanship than actual market demand. Solar and wind companies feared throughout 2015 that the production and investment tax credit would expire at the end of the year, prompting a taxpayer-subsidized hiring and investment frenzy. As the result of a bipartisan agreement reached early last year, however, renewable tax subsidies will be phased out through the next decade. This extension will put a simmer on things for a while, but guarantees renewed market instability in a few years’ time. Even if private investment can partially fill the gap left by the phase-out, skills mismatches are bound to hold back the solar industry.

The Solar Foundation’s report finds that eighty percent of solar employers experience at least “some difficulty” in finding qualified workers, with 23 percent encountering a great deal of difficulty. The skills gap is rapidly growing; with 19 percent of employers reported great difficulty finding workers in 2014. The chief culprit according to the report is a lack of required experience, which will continue to worsen as the most experienced engineers and technicians continue to retire

These caveats, however, don’t stop the Foundation from painting gains with a hyperbolic brush. Reports of “strong” and “record” years without a thorough discussion of tax incentives should be taken with a grain of salt. Solar Foundation is, after all, closely aligned with the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group that advocates on behalf of solar energy equipment installers and manufacturers. Moreover, the Foundation’s staff is hardly impartial to solar interests.  Andrea Luecke, the Foundation’s president and executive director, previously worked for the city of Milwaukee’s U.S. Department of Energy Solar America Cities program, “Milwaukee Shines,” where she helped Milwaukee implement policies aimed at increasing solar energy capacity. Program Director Yolanda Seabrooks spent eight years with SunEdison, one of the largest global renewable energy development companies aimed at providing solar photovoltaic systems to municipal, state, federal, utility and commercial customers. 

This web of companies and individuals has a vested interest in defending the non-utility solar sector, where nearly 70% of sectoral employment is concentrated. Rooftop solar, however, is among the most cost-inefficient renewable technology, and wholly dependent on subsidies. Advocates of the distributed-generation (ie. rooftop solar) industry argue that channeling money into solar energy has important social benefits, since the free-market is allegedly incapable of dealing with climate-change. But even if carbon carries a hefty social cost, our system of corporate welfare is still wasteful and inefficient. Utility solar is already reaching price parity with conventional energy generation in many areas even after taking subsidies out of the equation. This sector has a far lower price per watt of energy produced, and requires far fewer labor and permitting costs.

In contrast, the rooftop solar market would collapse without federal subsidies like the investment tax credit (ITC), and state net-metering regulations that increase prices on other utility customers. At every step of the way, government officials are all-too-willing to fleece taxpayers to fund dubious promotion schemes.

A recent congressional investigation into the Department of Energy revealed, for instance, that organizations routinely promote rooftop solar with public monies. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), which received millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies over the past nine years, advocates for onerous net-metering subsidies at the state level and provides technical assistance on panel installations. 

Rather than providing poorly-targeted subsidies to organizations pushing inefficient “renewable” technologies, the government should let customers determine the best ways to power our country. Utility solar will likely continue making inroads on price and quality, even in a subsidy-free environment. But companies promoting expensive, labor-intensive technologies should not expect taxpayers to foot the bill for their delusions of grandeur.