Report From Obama-Era Official Shows Solar Jobs Drop As King Coal Ascends

Chris White | Energy Reporter

The U.S. solar industry dropped roughly 24,000 jobs in 2017 while coal and oil jobs grew slightly, according to a Wednesday report on energy jobs from a former Obama-era energy official.

Job losses in the solar industry represented a reduction of six percent in 2017. Solar companies employed 350,000 people, the report said. Coal jobs remained constant at 92,000, though a 60 percent increase in coal exports during the first half of that year helped boost the industry’s status. (RELATED: US Coal Exports Boomed During Trump’s First Months In Office)

“Within this low-emission category, natural gas, wind and combined heat and power (CHP) employment increased in 2017, while solar employment declined,” according to the report’s executive summary. Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz joined with state energy officials to release the report, which President Donald Trump scrapped.

Solar power companies in the U.S. are heavily supported by financial incentives from the government. Most subsidies go to residential installations payments, called net metering or a 30 percent federal tax credit. Previously, solar subsidies were so lucrative solar-leasing companies installed rooftop systems, which run at minimum $10,000 — at no upfront cost to the consumer. This naturally favors relatively wealthy consumers.

Solar power and wind power get 326 and 69 times more in subsidies than coal, oil and natural gas, according to 2013 Department of Energy data collected by Forbes. Green energy in the U.S. received $13 billion in subsidies in 2013, compared to $3.4 billion in subsidies for conventional sources of energy and $1.7 billion in subsidies for nuclear, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.

Solar energy struggles to maintain viability once subsidies are removed, according to a 2015 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many of the industry’s job losses were due in part to states like Nevada nixing a policy forcing public utility companies to pay customers for access energy from solar panels.

Nevada Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hiked fees in 2015 on all homes affixed with solar panels, which effectively prevented Tesla and other solar companies from operating within the state. PUC’s rule essentially ended so-called net metering, which forced electrical utilities to buy the energy produced by rooftop solar panels at near-retail rates.

The move eventually led to a 30 percent decrease in solar installation jobs in the state in 2017.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval signed legislation in June 2017 bringing back installers Sunrun and Tesla after nearly a two-year absence. CEO Elon Musk boycotted the state until Nevada reinstated the subsidy. Nevada, with its sun-scorched landscape, represents a very large portion of the solar market. (RELATED: Nevada Reinstates Solar Panel Policy After Tesla Throws Temper Tantrum)

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