Solar, Wind Industries Pitch Job Growth to New Administration

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By Rebecca Kern

The solar and wind industries are pushing a message they think sells well even with an administration fixed on helping fossil fuels: Renewable energy creates jobs.

Solar and wind are among fastest growing sectors in the economy, and the trend is projected to continue, the renewable industries say.

“Our messaging all along has been jobs,” Christopher Mansour, vice president of federal affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, said.

“When you’re talking to any politician at the federal, state or local level .... jobs equals voters, and so jobs is such a strong message for decision makers at all levels,” Mansour told Bloomberg BNA.

The Trump administration has issued executive orders aimed at bringing back coal jobs, even though analysts say these jobs likely will not return because of the high cost of keeping coal plants running and automation in the industry. Meanwhile, renewable energy manufacturing and installation jobs continue to grow, the solar and wind trade associations in Washington say. The groups represent solar photovoltaic manufacturers including Trina Solar Ltd. and wind turbine makers such as Siemens Corp. and General Electric, as well as installers such as Vivint Solar Inc. and operators including Invenergy LLC.

In coal, robotic machines and automation inside mines and self-driving trucks in surface activities are replacing workers, Amy Myers Jaffe, a global fellow focusing on energy and environment at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, told Bloomberg BNA. She said the solar and wind manufacturing, installation and maintenance jobs may be harder to replace.

“As solar costs really fall, and the only way for coal to be competitive is to eliminate jobs. To me, that’s really the key point,” she told Bloomberg BNA.

The solar industry said it reached 260,077 employees by the end of 2016, a 51,000-person increase from 2015 (25 percent growth). Also, one out of every 50 new jobs in the U.S. was a solar job, Mansour said. The fastest-growing jobs in the field are in manufacturing photovoltaics cells and solar panel installation, according to The Solar Foundation, a non-profit solar advocacy group.

‘Exciting Story to Tell’

The wind industry makes the same point.

“We’ve always talked about jobs in the wind industry because we do have an exciting story to tell,” Tom Kiernan, the CEO of the American Wind Energy Administration, said. The wind industry supports 102,500 jobs, adding close to 15,000 in 2016, or 16 percent growth from 2015. “The growth is approximately nine times faster than the average industry in the country,” Kiernan told Bloomberg BNA.

The growth in wind energy jobs in 2016 is primarily attributable to wind project manufacturing and supply chain activity, and an increased number of employees to operate more wind turbines, AWEA says in its 2016 annual market report.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry sent a memo to his chief of staff in mid-April requesting a report expected out in June on electricity reliability and markets, querying whether subsidies to renewable energy sources are impacting struggling baseload resources like coal and nuclear. AWEA and SEIA sent a letter April 28 to Perry asking for the report process to be transparent and for them to solicit public feedback from stakeholder groups. They said the Energy Department has not yet responded.

The Energy Department spokesman Shaylyn Hynes said of the report, “The findings will be released to the public (including stakeholders) once the study is completed this summer. The Secretary looks forward to receiving input from all parties once that occurs.”

Outlook for Jobs

Jaffe said the momentum for growth will continue, “given the pace of growth in wind and solar compared to other energy sources for electricity in the U.S.”

Ethan Zindler, head of the Americas at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said 2016 was a record year for both new solar and wind installations in the U.S. BNEF forecasts approximately the same amount of wind and solar to be built in the next three to four years.

The biggest growth in the next few years will be in the commercial industrial and residential sectors involving rooftop solar. “And that’s the most labor intensive, so that would suggest we’ll continue to see job growth in solar as a result of that trend,” Zindler said.

Maintaining Tax Credits

The job growth in the renewable industries is largely attributed to the commercial and residential wind and solar production and investment tax credits, which will phase down by 2020 to 2021. Both industries are continuing to advocate for members of Congress to maintain these incentives as they enter into discussions on a tax reform bill.

“Our message is we got extended in 2015, but essentially we’ve already undergone tax reform,” Mansour said. “We’re already in transition. We’ve got the full 30 percent credit for 2017, 2018 and 2019, and then it ramps down to 26 percent in 2020, and 22 percent 2021.”

“It’s actually an argument that resonates very well with Democratic and Republican members. They see we’re an industry that’s already accepted a transitional ramp-down of the tax credit. You’d be hard-pressed to find too many industries out there that are in that situation right now,” he said.

Mansour and Kiernan said they’re pushing for maintenance of the tax credit to ensure stability and business certainty for the industry investors.“The industry, with that type policy clarity, is able to invest and those investments do mean additional jobs,” Kiernan said.

Mansour said the message so far has resonated with the congressional majority. “We’ve been very pleased with the response that we’ve gotten from Republican offices, both in the House and Senate,” he said.

The solar and wind industries donated more money in the 2016 federal-election cycle to House Republicans than to Democrats for the first time in history, according to lobbying data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Jobs Story

The solar industry accounts for the largest proportion of employees in the electric power generation sector.

The solar industry makes up 43 percent of this sector compared to the natural gas, coal and oil industries combined (22 percent), according to a January 2017 Energy Department report based on a survey of 30,000 businesses. The department reported a total of 373,807 solar employees in electric power generation in 2016—which is larger that the solar industry’s estimates that count employees who spend more than 50 percent of their time working on solar, whereas the Energy Department counts solar employees as those who spend any portion of their time working on solar.

Additionally, wind turbine service technicians are projected to be the fastest-growing occupation in the U.S. from 2014-2024, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data in December 2015.

California leads the country in the top number of solar jobs (100,050—nearly half of total U.S. solar jobs), followed by Massachusetts (14,582) and Nevada (8,371), according to The Solar Foundation. Meanwhile, Texas leads the wind jobs (22,000 to 23,000—nearly a quarter of total wind jobs). Texas also has the most wind turbine manufacturing facilities in the U.S., followed by Iowa and Oklahoma, which each support 8,000 to 9,000 jobs, according to AWEA’s 2016 annual market report.

Also, in 2016, solar and wind utility-scale installations made up 60 percent of new capacity additions to the U.S. electric grid, followed by natural gas at 33 percent, the Energy Information Administration reported. EIA is projecting capacity installations for wind and solar to continue to grow in the coming years.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rKern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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