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In the Energy Wars, It’s Solar Power: 1, Fossil Fuels: 0. For Now.

The U.S. solar industry is expanding at a breakneck pace, though the growth may not be sustainable.

According to a new survey from The Solar Foundation, the U.S. solar industry is expanding at a breakneck pace—so quickly that it’s a major driver of the nation’s economy. One out of every 78 new jobs created in the U.S. since 2013 was part of the solar industry—representing 1.3 percent of all new jobs. According to the survey, solar jobs grew 21.8 percent last year, with 36,000 new jobs on the way for 2015.

From installation to sales, solar jobs drastically outnumber fossil fuel jobs. But the industry still makes up a tiny slice of America’s energy pie. Image via Flickr user cgulyas2002

As of November 2014, solar employment reached a total of 173,807 workers, quickly encroaching on oil and gas extraction, which in the same time period employed 201,000. Last year, solar added nearly 50 percent more jobs (31,000) than oil and gas pipeline construction (10,529) and crude petroleum and natural gas extraction (8,688) combined. Meanwhile, coal mining employment has long been trending downward; the last available numbers come from 2013, when there were just over 80,000 coal miners—a decrease of more than 10 percent from 2012. That means there are at least twice as many solar workers as coal miners today, though it’s possible the disparity may be even greater. It’s important to note, however, that The Solar Foundation’s survey asks us to look at the solar industry as a whole—including installation, sales and distribution, product development, and manufacturing—while taking a narrow view of coal (only mining) and oil and gas (just extraction).

Solar is still a tiny slice of the American energy pie: It’s projected to make up 10 percent of our energy needs, but not until 2030. For now, a mere 0.4 percent of U.S. electricity comes from the solar sector. And all those jobs may simply be a side effect of the hands-on labor required for rooftop installation of solar panels (approximately 56 percent of solar jobs are installation-related); as this process becomes more efficient, fewer jobs will be necessary. Plus, a major industry slowdown is expected in 2017. That’s when a major federal tax credit—which, according to the survey, has “significantly improved” business for 73 percent of solar companies—is set to expire.

Still, over the next five years, 175 coal-fired power plants (more than 10 percent of total capacity) are expected to shut down. And increasing corporate investment in renewable energy demonstrates solar’s promise as both a financial and literal powerhouse. With new solar systems being installed every four minutes in the U.S., enthusiasm for clean energy is clearly on the rise, even if low prices (and the tax credits and subsidies that make those prices possible) are a major cause.

According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency, the continued success of renewable energy sources depends upon regulators working together to develop consistent policy in support of green energy: “Where there is a record of policy incoherence, confusing signals or stop-and-go policy cycles, investors end up paying more for their finance, consumers pay more for their energy, and some projects that are needed simply will not go ahead.”

Prices fluctuate all the time, but when effective policies remain in support of a common long-term goal, progress (and money) can be made.

Illustration by Addison Eaton

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