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.

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Solar Jobs Roughly Equal Coal Jobs in the U.S.

Good jobs in the solar industry are on the rise, while coal plants keep retiring. But what do those sunny numbers hide?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

There’s about as many U.S. jobs in the solar power industry as the coal industry, Vox pointed out yesterday. According to the Solar Foundation, as of 2014 there were more than 173,000 people employed in creating, selling, and installing solar panels on American homes and businesses. Vox’s Brad Plumer compared that to the miners, power plant workers, and transporters in the U.S. coal industry and found that number to be roughly equal, though he admitted to “this isn’t a perfect comparison.”

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Red Governors, Green Jobs: Could 2013 be the Turning Point for Clean Energy?

If it seems like you can’t open a newspaper anymore without reading about some terrible, weather-related calamity, don’t worry. It’s not all...

If it seems like you can’t open a newspaper anymore without reading about some terrible, weather-related calamity, don’t worry. It’s not all in your head. Between reports that 2012 was the hottest year in U.S. history (and somehow still one of the coldest worldwide in the 21st century), photos of a lightless post-Sandy lower Manhattan, and a heat wave that killed 32 senior citizens in Sao Paulo, Brazil, it is getting harder and harder for citizens, lawmakers, and businesses to ignore the impact of an ever-warming planet. And while companies large and small have begun to embrace sustainability as part of their business model, it seems like there is always a fight to enact legislation to protect the environment.

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America's Solar Industry Tries to Show It's Still on Top

China might sell more solar panels, but the U.S. remains a net exporter of solar goods.

In the past few years, China began making more solar panels than the United States. Workers in China are paid less than workers in America or Australia, and domestic solar companies have begun to confront the idea that they might not be able compete with China on manufacturing costs. But the American solar industry wants to show that there’s more to the solar economy than putting together panels.

A new report, sponsored by a solar industry association and conducted by a renewable energy analysis group, found that American companies are net exporter of solar products, despite importing the panels themselves. Last year, American companies exported $5.63 billion worth of solar products, while taking in $3.75 billion worth, according to the report. American exports to China top imports from there by at least $247 million.

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Across the Globe, Solar Power Just Keeps Getting Cheaper

Within the next four years, solar power in China could be as cheap as coal for generating electricity. In some parts of Australia, it's already there.

Within the next four years, solar power in China could be as cheap as coal for generating electricity, according to a think tank with ties to the Chinese government. In some regions of Australia, it’s already as cheap to buy solar-powered electricity as it is to buy coal-fired power, the Sydney Morning Herald reported this week. Two years ago, a U.S. solar company called FirstSolar announced that it had created a solar panel that costs just a dollar per watt to manufacture. According to a report published this summer by Ernst & Young, by 2013, making a solar module for that price will no longer be an achievement, it will be the industry average.

Solar power is getting cheaper. It’s something of a parlor game among energy companies and analysts to predict when, exactly, solar will achieve “grid parity” with coal and other cheap sources of electricity—in other words, when it will be just as economical to buy clean, renewable energy as it will be to buy coal power. There’s no clear answer: government subsidies will play a role, and solar will become a player in some regions and countries long before it makes sense everywhere. And just because solar is cheap doesn't mean it will become the world’s primary source of power overnight. When solar is as cheap as coal, it’ll make more financial sense for investors to build solar plants. But they’ll still have to be built.

And to build plants that produce cheap solar power, cheap panels are a requirement. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the subject of the Ernst & Young report, solar modules account for around 40 percent of costs in all but the largest solar electricity systems. In the largest ones, the modules account for more than 50 percent of costs. (Installation is another big cost driver.)

This reality presents a challenge to the companies that actual make the panels: how to stay profitable as the price of your product drops dramatically? In Australia, one solar cell manufacturer announced this week that it would outsource production to China, where wages are lower and costs cheaper. In the United States, EverGreen, once a leading solar company, filed for bankruptcy this week. It, too, has closed a factory—this one in Massachusetts—in favor of China-based manufacturing.

Don’t start bemoaning the state of green jobs just yet, though. Part of the reason solar panels are getting cheaper is that companies are still finding the most efficient ways to make the most effective panels. EverGreen succeeded for a while because it had found a way around using huge quantities of expensive silicon, the primary ingredient for most solar cells. Since the peak of EverGreen’s success, the price of silicon has plummeted, and its more expensive manufacturing process has become a liability.

Ely Sachs, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist who developed EverGreen’s technology, is already onto a new business, 1366 Technologies. The new company does use silicon, which while cheaper than it used to be, is still expensive. But instead of building the material into a block and slicing off solar wafers, like most solar manufacturers, 1366 will use a technique that creates individual wafers, saving silicon in the process and potentially cutting manufacturing costs in half. And the company is expanding: in June, it received a loan guarantee of $150 million from the Department of Energy.

photo (cc) via flickr user Xelcise

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Good Green Jobs News for Your Friday Afternoon

There's good news—economic and environmental—out there on the green jobs front.

I was just about to write a post about a terribly depressing new climate science draft paper (PDF) by James Hansen and Makiko Sato about how we're sitting right at a tipping point that, when crossed, will all but guarantee multi-meter (as in six feet plus) sea level rise this century. And then I thought—it's Friday afternoon, and Friday afternoon is no time for depressing climate science.

Instead, here are some uplifting stories of the resiliency of clean and green tech jobs in the face of nationwide recession.

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