Jobs in solar, wind power are growing 12 times faster than U.S. economy

January 28, 2017, 1 p.m.
solar panels in Southern California
Photo: Thomas Galvez/Flickr

The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is inevitable, since coal, oil and gas are far more finite than wind or sunlight. And because fossil fuels also emit greenhouse gases that cause high-speed climate change, there's good reason not to dawdle.

As a new report illustrates, the outlook for renewable energy is bright in the United States, the No. 2 emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide. Jobs in solar power are currently growing at about 20 percent annually, a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy, according to a report from the U.S.-based nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Jobs in wind power are growing at roughly the same rate, the EDF adds, and wind-turbine technician is now the fastest-growing profession in the country overall.

"These aren't just any jobs; they are well-paying, local opportunities that bolster our domestic economy," writes EDF Climate Corps director Liz Delaney in a blog post about the report. "Most renewable and energy-efficiency jobs can be found in small businesses, requiring on-site installation, maintenance and construction, making them local by nature. And many pay higher than average wages. For example, energy-efficiency jobs pay almost $5,000 above the national median, providing rewarding employment options to all Americans — even those without college or advanced degrees."

Overall, U.S. renewable-energy jobs have seen a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6 percent since 2012, according to the report, rising to 769,000 jobs in 2015. "This stands in stark contrast to the boom and bust cycles that characterize employment in fossil fuel extraction industries," the EDF adds, noting that fossil-fuel jobs have collectively declined during the same period, with a CAGR of -4.25 percent since 2012. Plus, according to a recent study in the journal Economic Modelling, investments in renewable energy generate about three times more direct and indirect jobs than comparable investments in fossil fuels.

Winds of change

wind turbines in Riverside County, California
Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr

While most U.S. energy still comes from fossil fuels, renewable sources — especially wind and solar power — are rapidly catching up. They now represent the largest share of all new electricity-generation capacity installed in the U.S., the EDF reports, at about 64 percent each year. They're also becoming more affordable, with production costs of photovoltaic solar panels dropping 72 percent from 2010 to 2015, helping U.S. solar deployment grow by a factor of 10 in just five years. The country is also seeing significant yearly growth in wind power, which has more than doubled its total capacity to 74 gigawatts since 2009.

The EDF report focuses on the U.S., but similar trends are unfolding around the planet. As of 2015, more than 8.1 million people held renewable-energy jobs worldwide, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, a 5 percent increase from 2014 — even as broader energy-sector jobs declined. In China, the No. 1 global emitter of greenhouse gases, renewable energy employed 3.5 million people in 2015, while oil and gas employed 2.6 million. And as the United Nations Environment Program reported in 2016, global investments in renewable energy have risen nearly 300 percent over the past 10 years.

Still, despite the momentum — and inevitability — of renewable energy's rise to power, its short-term growth remains vulnerable to shifting political winds. Thanks to the pace of election cycles, politicians don't always feel pressure to address long-term dangers like climate change and limited energy supplies, focusing instead on more immediate economic worries. Yet luckily for the renewable-energy industry (and its many beneficiaries), there is one issue that almost always gets a politician's attention: jobs.