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Solar-energy jobs booming in U.S.; Arizona seeing benefits

Two Lighthouse Solar employees install microcrystalline PV modules on top of a Colorado townhome in December 2011. (Photo courtesy Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

Two Lighthouse Solar employees install microcrystalline PV modules on top of a Colorado townhome in December 2011. (Photo courtesy Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

WASHINGTON – Solar energy jobs in the U.S. grew by 13 percent over the past year, a rate almost six times faster than the national average employment growth rate.

And Arizona officials said they are confident the state saw similar job growth, even though the report by the Solar Foundation did not break the numbers down by individual state.

“Right now, there are a bunch of small towns in southwestern Arizona where you can’t find a place to live because everyone is working on these solar jobs,” said Bruce Plenk, Tucson’s solar energy coordinator.

The National Solar Jobs Census 2012 released this month said there were just over 119,000 workers in the solar energy industry in the United States, up 13.2 percent from August 2011.

The installation sector of the industry saw the biggest growth, said Solar Foundation Executive Director Andrea Luecke.

“I would say the No. 1 reason that the solar industry is growing is because solar installations are booming,” she said.

Plenk said that’s the case in towns like Gila Bend and Dateland, where he has noticed a boom in solar-energy installation jobs in the past year or so.

While installation jobs increased, the report said the manufacturing sector of the industry shrank, shedding about 8,000 jobs in the past year. Luecke said the main reason for this is the tremendous amount of global competition.

Nancy LaPlaca, a policy adviser to Arizona Corporation Commissioner Paul Newman, said she has seen a decline in solar-energy manufacturing jobs in the state.

“We’re losing manufacturing jobs. We must be,” LaPlaca said. But she added that the numbers can be difficult to track because “people come and go” so frequently.

But Arizona as a whole has also seen a lot of growth in the solar industry, and Luecke said the state “is very representative of our national picture.”

“Arizona is a very important state for solar,” she said. “It’s currently ranked No. 2 in terms of installations for the second quarter in 2012.”

Luecke said more than 1,000 companies responded to her organization’s survey, and the consensus of those firms shows high optimism for continued growth.

The Solar Foundation expects about a 17 percent growth rate for the next year, which Luecke said would add about 20,000 jobs.

She cautioned, however, that solar-energy companies are often “overly optimistic” and predict faster growth than they actually achieve. Still, she is confident that the overall trend will be up.

“They say 17 percent, but we’d be happy with 13 percent like we had this year, or even 10 percent,” Luecke said.

Solar’s sunny picture

The National Solar Jobs Census 2012 said job growth was booming in most sectors of the industry over the past year. Among the findings of the report:

– There are currently 119,016 solar workers in the United States, up from 105,145 last year.

– Of the 14,000 jobs added over the past year, 86 percent were new hires as opposed to existing positions that had added solar responsibilities.

– Almost half of solar firms expect to hire in the next year and only 4 percent expect to cut positions, leading to an expected growth of 17.2 percent in solar employment in the coming year.


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