When we think of renewable energy, “environment,” “green,” and “clean” may be some of the first things that come to mind. But while renewable energy is critical to solving many environmental crises, to treat it as simply a green and energy focus is to miss a gigantic element in the renewable energy story: jobs and the economy.
Renewable energy has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States, and millions worldwide. Because renewable energy is distributed and modular—which is to say, created from systems spread all over—it has an economic impact that’s often widespread. Many people contribute to systems and their installation, and a good portion of those people are self-employed or employed in small enterprises.
Solar Power Equals Jobs
The growth of the solar industry has resulted in thousands of new American small businesses that install solar panels, as well as manufacturers who build different components of these solar panel arrays. Creative entrepreneurs have also developed innovative businesses in the solar sectorIn total, in the fall of 2013 there were approximately 143,000 people working in the U.S. solar industry, mostly at small businesses. This was an increase from approximately 119,000 in 2012, 100,000 in 2011, 93,000 in 2010, and 50,000 in 2009. The 143,000 jobs come from 18,000 locations, with jobs in every one of the 50 U.S. states. Of these jobs, 9.24 percent were filled by veterans of the U.S. Armed Services.
Approximately half of the 23,000 new solar jobs added in 2013 were solar power system installers. These installers are often self-employed or work for small businesses serving a local area or region.
In the period covered by the 2013 National Solar Jobs Census, the number of solar workers grew almost 20 percent, about 10 times more than the national economy as a whole, which grew an anemic 1.9 percent. The trend is expected to continue as solar power demand grows. “Many employers remain optimistic about continued employment growth,” notes The Solar Foundation. “Over the 12 months following the 2013 survey period, 44.5 percent of solar firms expect to add solar workers, while fewer than 2 percent expect to cut workers. With the expected addition of over 22,200 new solar workers over the next year, employment in the solar industry is expected to grow by 15.6 percent during a period in which employment in the overall economy is expected to grow by only 1.4 percent.”
Wind Power Job Creation
In terms of wind energy, there are also many small manufacturers that supply wind turbine parts. Wind farm developers are mostly large companies, but wind turbines provide needed income to many farmers, as they can be co-located with crops (and actually help at least some crops to grow) while create valuable electricity sold to utilities and may add supplemental income.
Wind power has grown quickly because it is often the cheapest option for new electricity. Big wind farms are common, with companies such as Google, IKEA, Walmart, and Facebook, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in wind farms. However, small farmers can also buy several wind turbines and place them in crop fields. Many have seen their farming supplemented by the extra income.
The nonprofit Windustry has been promoting community-owned wind farms for over a decade. It assists farmers and other citizens and local community members on the logistics of leasing land to wind developers, working with local governments, taxes and tax credits, turbine selection, and more.
In general, wind farms are located in rural areas. Wind technician jobs in these areas, as well as the construction and administration jobs needed for such projects, also provide much needed economic activity. Several community colleges in rural areas where wind farms are popular have started wind technician courses and degrees.
Sales and land taxes on these wind turbines and wind farms also helps to put more money into the local economy.
A Feast for Entrepreneurs
Aside from the design, development, installation, and manufacturing jobs in the wind and solar industries, there are also creative entrepreneurs helping to advance these industries in more creative ways. Here are a few examples.
Mosaic: Mosaic is a B corporation that enables crowd-investing in large solar projects; people can invest in a project with as little as $25. It’s been compared to Kickstarter or IndieGogo. Mosaic has begun offering home solar loans for as little as $0 down.
EnergySage: EnergySage provides estimates of how much money you would save by going solar via a solar lease/PPA, a loan, or an upfront cash purchase. It links you to multiple solar installers and lets them pitch you so that you can closely examine the options in your area.
OwnEnergy: OwnEnergy helps entrepreneurial individuals, companies and communities generate their own renewable wind power.
Renovate America: Renovate America’s HERO Financing Program solves one of the greatest barriers for homeowners and businesses that want to go solar: It enables them to skip the high upfront price of a solar power systems and pay for solar panels, small wind turbines, geothermal heat pumps, or energy-efficiency improvements by paying more on your property taxes over time.
One of the most exciting things about the renewable energy revolution is that it’s not only transforming our energy sources, but is also transforming our economies and societies.