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Solar Secrets
Shining a Light on the Darker Side of Solar Power

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But Are Those Solar Jobs Sustainable Jobs?

Solar Secrets on January 23, 2015

Americans have had so little good economic news lately that almost any they get is greeted with a ticker tape parade. So it’s only natural that a recent report showing surprisingly strong job growth in the solar power sector garnered saturation media coverage and a lot of pom-pom waving from industry cheerleaders. But as with so much else involving solar energy, these seemingly-impressive gains ought to be viewed in context, lest average Americans develop even more unrealistic expectations about this faddish but still problem-fraught energy technology. The solar jobs picture presents a good-news, bad-news sort of situation.

The "good" news is that the industry is indeed experiencing a boom. Employment in the U.S. solar sector grew “20 times faster than the overall economy,” according to the findings of the industry-friendly report, “accounting for 1.3% of all jobs created in the U.S. over the past year.” The number of “solar workers” grew nearly 22 percent between November of 2013 and November 2014, resulting in 80,000 new jobs, bringing total industry employment to 173,807 jobs. The report made a point of pointing out that this is as many jobs as the U.S. coal industry creates.

The bad news is that many of these jobs, and much of this industry’s explosive growth, wouldn’t be possible without huge direct and indirect subsidies, market preferences (which usually come in the form of renewable energy mandates), federal and state corporate welfare giveaways and utility cost-shifting schemes that force non-solar customers to cross-subsidize solar users. Remove these costly supports and much of the industry would fall like a house of cards. 

The industry has a simple answer for this. It wants its political friends to keep the handouts coming, no matter what that costs the rest of us. And “Big Sun” now has the lobbying clout required to defend its special preferences. These seemingly-impressive job numbers will be used as one more rationale for keeping the gravy train rolling, even if it’s average taxpayers and ratepayers who are being taken for a ride.    

“Sustainability” is a popular buzz word these days. But there’s precious little talk of the fiscal or economic sustainability of a “green energy” business model that’s predicated on perpetual handouts. New jobs are nice. But sustainable jobs are better. And it’s far from clear how many solar jobs would survive, and how much of this booming industry would go bust, if these supports are removed.

We won’t know the answer to that -- we won’t know how many solar jobs are sustainable jobs – until “green energy” gets off the dole.

We’ve heard assurances for decades that these are only temporary supports: that these cool and “clean” new technologies, if given a publicly-funded push, are on the verge of breakthroughs that would make them more affordable, dependable, “cost-competitive” and the preferred choice of most energy consumers. And we’re hearing that same refrain again now.

Yet the day never seems to come when we remove the training wheels and see if “renewables” can roll without them. We hear a lot of we’re-in-the-big-leagues-now bravado from industry interests. But the panicked predictions of financial ruin we hear, whenever one of the industry’s many props is proposed for elimination, suggests otherwise.  

Of course solar jobs are growing faster than coal jobs. One industry is a political and media darling, while the other has been turned by critics into a pariah, which must be banished, effectively regulated out of existence, in order to placate climate alarmists. What other result would one expect when government policies actively promote one energy technology, while punishing the other, as has been the case all through the Obama years, despite this President’s “all-of-the-above” energy rhetoric?

Former President Ronald Reagan was no economist, but he touched on fundamental economic truth when he said, “If you want more of something, subsidize it; if you want less of something, tax it.” Reagan might just as well have used “regulate it” instead of “tax it,” since regulation effectively functions as a hidden tax, by driving-up costs on industries that get passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. And the regulatory burdens this administration has heaped on tried-and-true energy sources is naturally going to benefit the pie-in-the sky.  

Here’s a key piece of context missing from such comparisons. American coal workers still generate nearly 40 percent of America’s electricity, while their solar counterparts produce less than 1 percent. That the solar industry requires so many workers to produce so little power (and unreliable power, at that) just highlights its inefficiency, relative to conventional rivals. It also helps explain why it costs so much. Compare the two groups not simply in terms of emloyment numbers, but in terms of how much each workforce contributes to the nation’s overall energy portfolio, and the contribution of solar workers is still laughably small. That’s even with all the subsidies and other supports solar enjoys.  

Don’t get us wrong: We’re happy anytime we see Americans going back to work. We’d just feel so much better about the solar jobs situation if they didn't depend as much as they do on a corporate welfare-based business model.    


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