solar census

Solar industry brushes off setbacks & powers ahead

The nation's solar industry is expected to grow 24 percent next year.

That's the conclusion of the National Solar Jobs Census 2011, produced by the nonprofit Solar Foundation and Cornell University. The 68-page report says that as of August 2011, the U.S. solar industry employed an estimated 100,237 workers, up 6.8 from a year earlier. That compares with .3 percent growth over the same period in the U.S. employment rate.

About a quarter of those employed by the solar industry, 25,575 -- by far the most for any state, worked in California. Colorado with 6,186 workers came in second and Arizona with 4,786 came in third.

It's good news for an industry pounded by the political fallout brought on by the bankruptcy of solar equipment maker Solyndra, which had received a $535 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. Additional bankruptcies by SpectraWatt and Evergreen Solar didn't help the perception.

Ulicia Wang of says even First Solar, known for low-cost production, "posted a big drop in earnings during the first half of this year."

Adding to the positive tone, General Electric has announced a $600 million investment in its solar manufacturing sector by adding a plant in Aurora, Colo. The move means 355 jobs and panels commercially available from the facility by 2013.

GE officials say material produced at the factory will be more efficient, lighter weight and larger than conventional thin film panels, reducing costs and speeding payback.

Some of this has to do with falling costs industry wide. Power purchase agreements offered by installers are influencing more commercial businesses, municipalities and and homeowners to chose solar. These offset high installation costs and enable building owners to benefit right away with reduced energy bills.

"The unprecedented growth of the industry is providing much needed job creation despite an historic economic and workforce downturn," the report says. "The optimism of solar employers in the midst of these conditions suggests that job growth will continue for years to come."