In the 1990s, the phrase, “it’s the economy, stupid” became a de facto slogan for the successful campaign of Bill Clinton (D) for president of the United States. But as the nation sees growing inequality and a shortage of well-paying jobs a full decade after the last recession, this phrase could be updated to “it’s the jobs”.
By this metric, solar is delivering for hundreds of thousands of Americans and their families. According to the latest version of the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census, 250,000 Americans were spending 50% or more of their working in solar, with solar taking up all the working hours of 89% of these workers.
But what about the workers that are only spending part of their time working in solar? According to a new report by the Energy Future Initiative, there are another 100,000 Americans workers whose jobs have a part-time solar component, for a total of 350,000 workers employed in whole or in part by solar (with some reports suggesting a peak of 373,000 workers at the end of 2016 PDF).
The return of Ernie Moniz
The individuals behind Energy Futures Initiative and why they are producing the 2018 Energy and Employment Report is worth noting. The think tank is headed by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who served during the second term of President Barack Obama (D), along with what appear to have been his top lieutenants at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Moniz is taking on this task of providing comprehensive energy job data after DOE abandoned it under President Trump and Energy Secretary Perry. Energy Secretary Perry notes that DOE’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report – which was first published in 2016 and 2017 when he served as energy secretary – filled several important gaps in energy data, including:
- business activities essential to the operation of traditional energy companies classified by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) within the business activities of other sectors;
- jobs associated with the production of renewable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal power; and
- jobs associated with energy efficiency.
These errors seem to be particularly severe as regards solar. “The solar sector is an example of the inability of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) labor market data to completely capture employment across PV and CSP technologies,” notes the report. It also provides detail about exactly what is missing. From p.46-47:
For 2017, the BLS reported that utilities employed just under 2,800 workers for solar-specific generation. However, this figure does not count any jobs in the construction or other value-chain industries for projects financed, owned, or directed by utilities. The data suggest that utilities are directly responsible for at least 25 percent of the solar jobs in the United States, but no other NAICS codes yet exist for solar electric generation. Existing labor market data therefore dramatically underestimate the additional workers engaged in solar-related work.
And as DOE under Perry chose not to produce a similar report that might accurately capture these omissions, now Moniz is doing so in his capacity as a private citizen – and one with a far more impressive resume in energy than Secretary Perry. In doing so, he is also joined by the National Association of State Energy Officials, as yet another example of states taking action on energy and climate issues without the Trump Administration.
Solar employs more workers than coal and nukes
However, the most important aspect of the report is not the additional 100,000 part-time workers, or the explanation of why we should be reading Solar Foundation’s estimates (which were used in the report) instead of the truly incomplete accounting by BLS.
Instead, it is that the report provides a meaningful, apples-to-apples comparison with other energy industries, and here the rising political power of solar is clear. The report finds a total of 224,000 workers supported by the coal industry, stretching all the way from mining through electricity generation and including 57,000 in business and professional services, coal-related manufacturing and other sectors.
Similarly, the report finds another 74,000 workers in the nuclear industry, including 9,000 workers in uranium mining and other nuclear fuel-related occupations.
This puts both nuclear and coal at a grand total of 298,000 workers, a full 52,000 behind solar. This is particularly notable as coal and nuclear represent half of U.S. electricity generation, and solar only 2%. However, those coal and nuclear workers are all needed to sustain their electricity generation, while only a minimal number of the solar workers will be required to sustain the 2% of electricity generation already installed over the next several decades.
The largest employer among electricity generation technologies is still natural gas, which has been enjoying a boom for the first two decades of the 21st century, and has now reached 429,000 total jobs.
These employment numbers stand in stark contrast with the Trump Administration’s attempts to prop up the struggling coal and nuclear power industries, including Trump’s appeals to coal miners. As workers, their families and the communities they support representing votes, the real political power is increasingly not coming from fuels that come from the ground, but from the abundance that falls from the sky.