Data shows solar energy really is a leading American job creator

Data shows solar energy really is a leading American job creator
© Getty Images

The rapid expansion of solar energy over the past few years has created hundreds of thousands of well-paying American jobs. The most recent National Solar Jobs Census published by The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit organization I lead, found there were 260,077 solar workers in the United States as of 2016. That year, one in 50 new U.S. jobs were in solar, and the industry added jobs 17 times faster than the overall economy. 

As the industry wait for a decision on solar panel tariffs, some critics questioned the accuracy of this jobs data. The Coalition for a Prosperous America recently claimed the total number of solar jobs is around 30,000 (which, if true, would make our data inflated by a factor of nine). 

ADVERTISEMENT

The Solar Foundation is not a lobbying organization and we have no advocacy role in the pending trade case. However, we are committed to publishing accurate and objective data on the U.S. solar workforce, information that is vital for decision makers in the government and industry. It is important to understand how we arrived at these jobs numbers, and how we ensure they are robust and accurate.

 

First, the latest Solar Jobs Census found that roughly half of all jobs — 137,133 — were in the installation sector. As the coalition notes in a report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Standard Occupational Classification only found 11,300 solar installers in the “Solar Photovoltaic Installer” category. So why is there such a large discrepancy between the two figures?

In short, the BLS data is incomplete and highly problematic. Key reasons include: 

  • The BLS defines “Solar Photovoltaic Installers” very narrowly. For example, their definition does not include electricians, supervisors, or construction laborers working on solar sites. These occupations are all identified with separate occupational classification codes, regardless of whether they work on solar installation sites.
  • In this narrow definition, BLS also does not include any installation company support staff such as sales representatives, design staff, human resources professionals, management staff, executives, warehouse employers, and so on. Particularly in the residential installation sector, this omits a very significant number of jobs.
  • In the utility-scale segment of solar installation, the BLS categorization does not include project development staff or workers completing solar site prep work, such as grading and foundations.

When we released our first annual Solar Jobs Census in 2010, we specifically wanted to identify gaps in the BLS coverage of the solar industry. Today, the Census is widely recognized as the most authoritative and comprehensive analysis of the U.S. solar workforce. Unlike economic impact models that simply estimate employment, the Solar Jobs Census provides statistically valid and current data gathered from actual employers. 

The Census is administered using a rigorous survey using telephone calls and emails to energy establishments across the United States. The most recent Solar Jobs Census is the same survey that was administered by the U.S. Department of Energy for the 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report. This survey was reviewed by BLS and approved by the Office of Management and Budget. 

What we’ve learned most of all from seven years of publishing the Census is that solar is a powerful driver of U.S. job growth. The solar jobs total has grown from 93,000 in 2010 to more than 260,000 six years later. These jobs pay higher than the national average, offer excellent opportunities for advancement, and can be found in all 50 states. We look forward to releasing the next annual Solar Jobs Census within the next few weeks as we continue to track the development of the American solar workforce.

Andrea Luecke is president and executive director of The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) organization in Washington, D.C.