In 2016 , “solar employment expanded … 17 times faster than the total US economy”, and employed “more than 260,000 people,” according to CNN. But despite sunny prospects, the solar industry faces issues that may cloud its future.
Chief among them, a reluctance to move away from carbon-based fuel sources that are both more expensive and more damaging to the environment than solar power.
Here Comes the Sun
The number and frequency of extreme weather events has rapidly increased in the past few decades, a fact attributed to human-intensified climate change by climate scientists. (A 2013 study found that 97.2 percent of scientific summaries published between 1991 and 2011 assumed humans play a role in climate change.)
Despite the fact solar energy is significantly better for the environment — releasing far fewer climate-change-causing emissions than legacy fossil fuel power sources — this alone cannot drive its adoption. It also needs to make financial sense, and be cost competitive with traditional forms of power generation. And that’s exactly what’s happening; According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the cost of solar energy production could consistently undercut the cost of energy produced from fossil fuels within two years. (In some markets, solar energy is already the cheapest option.)
Keep On the Sunny Side
Unfortunately for the solar energy industry in the U.S., in January of 2017, the Trump administration announced a 30 percent tariff on imported solar cells, a move that the Solar Energy Industries Association said would result in “the loss of roughly 23,000 jobs in the solar industry this year, as well as the delay or cancellation of billions of dollars of investments.”
The tariffs will likely make solar power less competitive with other sources of energy, like coal, gas and oil — industries that had a combined work force of slightly more than 187,000 in 2016 — and consequently result in slower hiring in the U.S. (The coal industry is home to a workforce that’s actually shrinking; between 2011 and 2016, the industry lost nearly 60,000 jobs, a 44 percent decline.)
Alternatively, the number of jobs in solar energy has nearly tripled since 2010, with solar employment rising in 29 states last year, including Arizona, Utah, Minnesota, Ohio, New York and Florida. And given the expected price falls for solar energy production, the industry is poised to grow even more in the near future.The number of jobs in solar energy has nearly tripled since 2010, with solar employment rising in 29 states last year. And given the expected price falls for solar energy production, the industry is poised to grow even more.Click To Tweet
In fact, the growth of the young solar industry is being restrained by the political efforts of some of the biggest energy and utility companies in the United States, companies that compete with solar and other renewable energy sources.
As reported in Politico:
“Politics may be the biggest roadblock to change. America’s infrastructure was built for a world powered by the combustion of 300-million-year-old carbon, and its pipelines, smokestacks and gas stations all produce revenue for influential interests that see a green new world as a financial threat. Those interests have powerful allies in President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans who control Congress.”
But if solar power continues to undercut the cost of power produced legacy fossil fuels, the solar industry will also continue employ greater numbers of people, and the argument for change will be all the stronger.
Solar power is an example of an emerging industry, or an industry that has exploded in size due to recent changes in technology, changes in law, or both. Other emerging industries reshaping the economy include virtual and augmented reality, and legal cannabis.
If you’re interested in learning more about what impact these emerging industries are having on the economy, or if you’re interested in seeking a job in one, read PayScale’s report, Jobs in Emerging Industries: The Growth of New Industries, and the Job Creation That Comes With Them.
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