The Shift to Solar Energy and the Effect on U.S. Jobs
Jim Hoffer | November 06, 2017

Solar energy has been a slice of the energy sector that has exploded over the past few years, where the growth has been fueled by a combination of technological advances and shift in focus to clean energy. The global solar market grew by 50% over the past year, the largest contributors to growth. The growth of solar power in the US means that incumbent energy sources such as coal or natural gas will fall in usage, a trend that has already been occurring over the past few years.  However, one thing to keep in mind is that while solar energy has been creating many new jobs, it has replaced existing jobs in middle America and the new jobs are created elsewhere. Solar energy may be an exciting new trend, but it is slowly and certainly wiping out the jobs in states that historically focused on oil, natural gas, and coal.


Solar’s Explosive Growth in the US

            Solar in the US has exploded over the past decade. Installation of new solar power has grown exponentially and is speculated to continue growing at a tremendous rate. Over the next five years, GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association announced that to triple by 2020. As time passes, the technology behind solar energy has only improved and the sector has moved from an expensive, experimental technology into an affordable, proven means of generating energy. Since 2010, the dropped by 60%. The price dropped by almost 20% in 2016 alone. Available solar power in the U.S. has grown by over 2,500% since 2010 – from 1.2 gigawatts (GW) to 30 GW today, which is energy to power 5.7 million American homes.

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            What’s interesting today is that not all states have officially adopted solar energy, which means that there is still much more potential for growth. Only twenty-two states as of 2016 have actively installed solar panels, and many states such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Minnesota have begun the process of growing solar energy from within their states. Solar Energy Industries Association’s estimate that the U.S. solar industry will triple in size only takes into account 24 of 50 states - which means growth potential is tremendous and will continue to grow in the far future. It’s important to note that the growing adoption of solar power is not just limited in the U.S. – it has become a global trend where Germany, China, and Italy have been leading the charge.  


The Westward Shift in Energy Jobs

            While the solar sector has exploded over the past few years, it’s important to see where new jobs are being created. The rapid transformation in the energy sector to focus on clean energy has created many new jobs, but the location of newly-created solar jobs have left many in middle America struggling. As of June 2017, the number of solar jobs doubled the number of coal jobs; and over 40% of coal jobs have disappeared since 2011. The vast majority of coal or natural gas jobs are concentrated in the middle of the US in states such as Wyoming, North Dakota, and Texas, which have seen a huge number of energy-related jobs disappear. While the rapid growth of solar has created a significant number of jobs, most have been concentrated primarily on the West Coast, specifically in California and Nevada. When it comes to other renewable energy sources such as wind or hydroelectricity, the job market is concentrated outside of the coal and natural gas states too. In other words, the states whose economy focused on incumbent forms of energy generation (coal, natural gas, and oil) have been losing jobs while new solar jobs are being created outside those states.


The Cost to middle America

            After seeing how energy jobs have shifted away from states that rely on oil, coal, and natural gas jobs, it’s no surprise that many of these states are struggling with creating new jobs. Their primary focus in the past was to build up industry focused on what their state was good at – utilizing their natural resources, and it’s unfortunate that those states are now being punished due to changing public sentiment. With the increased focus on climate change, the conversation about renewable and clean energy has become ever-present in the minds of Americans, and the current dialogue is pushing them towards exploring solar, wind, and hydroelectricity solutions. This means that the future will be bleak for the former oil, gas, and coal states, as jobs will continue to shift away from those states towards countries that have been embracing new technologies with fervor. While the shift may create a net increase of energy jobs, it does so at middle America’s expense.  


The Future of American Energy

            Solar energy may be the first step towards a future of clean and renewable energy, but it comes at a cost to some of the largest states in America. It’s important to realize that new jobs are being created outside the states that used to support the entirety of American energy generation, which means the states that powered the country are now being left behind. Jobs are disappearing with no replacements appearing and the trend will continue due to the success of solar energy. The combination of low cost and appeasing the public will make solar energy adoption more prevalent, but it’s important to ask at what cost.