Outlook bright for employment in solar industry

Heidi Ihrke has watched her solar energy business grow from two employees to 20 over the past six years, a reflection in part of the kind of growth that has made Colorado a top state for employment in the industry.

“Colorado promotes a good environment for solar to flourish,” says Ihrke, co-founder and co-owner of High Noon Solar in Grand Junction.

According to the latest results of an annual jobs census conducted by the Solar Foundation, Colorado employed nearly 6,200 people in the solar industry, second only to California and its work force of almost 26,000. Moreover, Colorado ranked first in the census in solar jobs per capita.

Nationwide, the solar energy industry employs more than 100,000 people, an increase of nearly 6,800 in the past year.

“States like Colorado see solar as one of the cornerstones for our economy now and into the future,” says Wendy Mitchell, chief executive officer of the Aurora Economic Development Council.

GE Solar recently announced plans to open a $300 million manufacturing facility in Aurora that will create 355 direct new jobs in the solar industry.

“Colorado’s investment in the solar industry is paying off in good jobs for skilled workers,” Mitchell says. “It is important that we continue to promote this job-generating industry both at the state and federal level.”

Andrea Luecke, executive director of the Solar Foundation, expects the industry to continue to grow. “But policymakers, work force training providers and the industry must work together to continue creating good jobs for skilled workers,” Luecke adds.

The Solar Foundation —  a nonprofit solar education and research organization based in Washington, D.C. —  conducted the 2011 census with the BW Research Partnership’s Green LMI Consulting division with technical assistance from Cornell University.

The census examined employment along the solar industry chain, including installation, wholesale trade, manufacturing, utilities and other fields. The census was based on information from more than 2,100 solar businesses that responded to surveys.

As of August, 17,198 solar employment sites employed a total of 100,237 workers. Solar energy businesses reported adding 6,735 workers since August 2010, an increase of 6.8 percent at a time when the overall work force in the United States grew only 0.7 percent.

Out of the total work force in the solar energy industry, 52,503 people worked in installation, another 24,064 worked in manufacturing and 17,722 worked in sales and distribution.

At the state level, California remained the national leader in employment with 25,575 jobs, followed by Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania and New York. Florida, Texas, Oregon, New Jersey and Massachusetts rounded out the top 10.

The census also found that solar energy companies expect staffing to continue to increase. Nearly half of firms expect to add jobs, increasing the overall work force by almost 24,000 by August 2012.

“These survey responses merely reflect employers’ best estimates at expected new hiring, but it demonstrates a clear growth pattern for the industry and tremendous optimism by employers in the industry,” Luecke says.

Employers cited a number of factors likely to encourage growth, including the extension of federal tax incentives, the creation of state and local incentive programs and greater consumer awareness of solar products and services.

Employers also cited obstacles to growth, though, including general economic conditions, a lack of state incentives and a lack of awareness of solar products and services.

Lou Villaire, sales manager at the Atlasta Solar Center in Grand Junction, agrees the solar energy industry and its work force have grow rapidly nationwide and in Colorado. While there were only a handful of companies in the state five years ago, there are now more than 200, Villaire says.

Atlasta has operated in Grand Junction since 1979 and  subsequently installed more than 2,000 solar systems in Colorado. The company has increased staffing over the past five years from three to 12, Villaire says.

But with that growth has come competition, Villaire adds. “It’s a very, very competitive, active market.”

While rebates and tax breaks encourage consumers and businesses to install solar systems, those incentives likely will decrease over time, Villaire says. At the same time, though, manufacturing costs are coming down.

Ihrke said many of her residential and commercial customers have switched from purchasing solar energy systems to leasing them.

High Noon Solar installs the systems, which are owned by SunPower Corp. Homeowners and businesses make lease payments over 20 years.

Ihrke says the leasing arrangement makes solar power available to more customers because no money is required up front. Moreover, solar systems reduce electrical bills by up to 60 percent, she says.

Like others in the solar energy industry, Ihrke remains optimistic about the future. As electricity costs rise, solar energy becomes more competitive, she says. That, in turn, boosts manufacturing.

“It’s a great industry to be in,” she says.