Falling solar and LED prices generate green jobs

The cost of clean energy is dropping.

Prices for solar panels are declining, and analysts and industry insiders believe solar energy generation will reach cost parity with fossil fuels in the next five years.

Joining solar's trek to affordability are light emitting diodes, better known as LED lights. For instance, San Joaquin Valley clients of an LED street light replacement program got better rates and will be able to replace more inefficient high-pressure sodium fixtures because of better prices offered by suppliers. And, yes, these are lights that meet federal Buy American requirements.

Big deal, and this has come in just the past 12 months or so.

President Obama singled out LEDs during a visit to a Cree Inc. plant in Durham, N.C. on June 13, 2011. Cree employs 5,000 manufacturing the lights and plans to add a new 400,000-square-foot facility and a second production line that will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"At Cree, you’re putting people back to work in a field that has the potential to create an untold number of new jobs and new businesses right here in America – and that’s clean energy," the president said.

The tour was part of an effort to address the nation's economic slide by meeting with the business leaders on the president's Jobs and Competitiveness Council. Obama got input from business leaders and presented ideas to accelerate job growth.

Obama may be getting beat up on the economy right now, but he staged his photo op in a sector of the economy he believes in. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act under his watch contributed $3.2 billion to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program, mostly for the installation of energy efficiency retrofits, the most cost-effective clean energy investment.

Prices for LED lights remain high, but they're coming down significantly. I purchased a new 9-foot umbrella for my backyard outdoor table from a Clovis hardware store for $90. It was a good deal, but I had no idea it came with a solar panel that powers several configurations of LED lights. They're not overly bright but perfect for evening dinners. My son can't get over how cool they are.

Expect more products like that. At this point the LED replacement bulbs rated for exterior use would cost me $40 apiece. So I still use cheap incandescents. But the prices will drop.

That means it's likely manufacturers like Cree will be ramping up.

Phillips Lighting CEO Zia Eftekhar told Martin LaMonica of cnet.com at the May 2011 LightFair industry conference in Philadelphia that the company expects half of its sales will be LED-related by 2015.

And SolarCity received an investment of $280 million from Google, giving it the chops to cover rooftops with solar panels. The money goes to a fund that enables homeowners to lease solar installations or sign power-purchase agreements for the energy produced on their rooftop solar systems.

From my perspective, Obama's on the right track, but he's still got a way to go as far as others are concerned. Republican candidates for president are tearing him up in the press. Even Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Clinton, wants more.

"The President has to have a bold jobs plan, with specifics," Reich wrote in the Christian Science Monitor. "Why not exempt the first $20,000 of income from payroll taxes for the next year? Why not a new WPA for the long-term unemployed, and a Civilian Conservation Corps for the legions of young jobless Americans?

Bold? Specifics? Heck, clean energy appears to be doing pretty well on its own, with help from assorted rebates and true believers, of course.

The U.S. Solar Institute reported that solar in 2010 employed about 93,500 people and that growth in 2011 is expected to be 26 percent, tacking on another 24,000 jobs. Not huge, but the sector is surpassing steel, grist.org reports.

Expect more in LED lighting, wind and maybe even geothermal. The jury remains out on biofuel.

Photo: President Obama at LED plant flanked by Chuck Swoboda, chairman and CEO of Cree Inc., left, and Matthew Rose, chairman and CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, right. Courtesy White House blog.