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Renewable Energy Leading U.S. Employment Growth

 Wind technician on the job Photo: Energy.gov

Wind technician on the job Photo: Energy.gov

By George Harvey

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released data for employment in energy fields for January, 2017. According to the data, solar generation has grown to employ the most people of all generating technologies, with 373,807 nationwide; wind power took second place at 101,738; and coal generation was third with 86,035, not including the miners themselves.

Other data from the Bureau of Labor statistics shows that jobs in major renewable energy technologies are projected to grow faster over the coming decade than for any other field. From 2015 to 2016, the number of wind technicians increased 96% and the number of solar installers shot up 105%.

The new jobs pay well. Wind technicians have a median pay of $52,000 and solar installers of $39,000. With the growth in these fields as fast as it is, this means that there are employees who have taken entry level jobs and are earning the median pay in less than a year. Going from finding that entry-level job as a solar installer to earning $39,000 per year takes less than one year for some people.

There are reasons that wind technicians are paid so well. The day’s work often starts with a 30-story climb up the inside of a wind turbine mast on a ladder, carrying tools and supplies. Then the actual work might entail dangling 25 stories up from a rope, repairing the fiberglass on the tip of a wind turbine blade where it was struck by lightning. Fortunately for those of us who are bothered by heights, the wind industry has good jobs besides those for wind turbine technicians.

Installing solar panels. Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation.

Installing solar panels. Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation.

These data show employment in the renewable electricity sector growing at a large multiple of jobs elsewhere in the economy. This is certainly true of a comparison with the average of all jobs, but wind technician and solar installer are regularly reported to be fastest growing job descriptions in the country. Again, doing a little math on the data above, we can see that over 190,000 jobs were added in the wind industry in one year. If we add the 86,035 workers in coal generating plants and about 52,000 coal miners we only come to 138,035 jobs in total.

The number of jobs mining coal and working in coal-burning power plants is not expected to grow. One coal mine did open this year, but the coal it will produce is of a grade used for making steel, not power production. No new coal-burning power plants have opened this year, and plants continue to close, despite efforts of the Trump administration to keep them going. Fortunately, we have better options.

Natural gas statistics are perplexing. Though plants continue to be brought online, data from the Energy Information Administration clearly shows that amount of electricity generated from natural gas is declining. In the last year, every month showed a decline from the same month in the previous year. The average decline was over 10%. That means the capacity factors of the plants are being reduced significantly. If that trend continues, we might expect a number of jobs to be lost in the natural gas generating sector in the not too distant future.

Clearly, we have great options for a future with clean, renewable energy.

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