Americans have had so little good economic news in recent years that almost any we get is met with a ticker tape parade. So it???s only natural that a recent report showing surprisingly strong job growth in the solar energy sector garnered considerable media coverage and a lot of pom-pom waving from industry cheerleaders.
But as with so much else involving solar energy, these seemingly-impressive gains need to be viewed in context, lest average Americans develop even more unrealistic expectations of this faddish but still problem-fraught energy technology. In reality, the solar jobs picture presents a good-news, bad-news sort of quandary.
The “good” news is that the industry is indeed enjoying a boom. Employment in the U.S. solar sector grew ???20 times faster than the overall economy,??? according to the findings of the industry-friendly report, ???accounting for 1.3% of all jobs created in the U.S. over the past year.??? The number of ???solar workers??? grew nearly 22 percent between November of 2013 and November 2014, resulting in 80,000 new jobs, bringing total industry employment to 173,807 jobs. The authors made a point of emphasizing that this is as many jobs as the U.S. coal industry can claim.
The bad news is that many of these jobs, and much of this industry???s explosive growth, wouldn???t be possible without huge direct and indirect subsidies, market preferences (which usually come in the form of renewable energy mandates), federal and state corporate welfare giveaways and utility cost-shifting schemes that force non-solar customers to subsidize solar users. Remove these supports and much of the industry could fall in on itself like a house of cards.
The industry has a simple answer for this. It wants its political pals to keep the handouts coming, no matter what they cost the rest of us. And ???Big Sun??? now has the lobbying clout necessary to defend its special payouts and preferences. ???Sustainability??? is a word we hear a lot these days. But there???s zero talk of the fiscal or economic sustainability of a ???green energy??? business model that???s predicated on perpetual handouts. New jobs are nice. But sustainable, unsubsidized jobs are better. How many of these jobs are sustainable if the supports are removed and the solar boom goes bust? We won???t know that until ???green energy??? gets off the dole.
We???ve heard assurances for decades that these are only temporary supports: that these cool new technologies, if given a publicly-funded push, are on the verge of breakthroughs that would make them more affordable, dependable, ???cost-competitive??? and the preferred choice of most energy consumers. And we???re hearing that same refrain again. Yet the day never seems to come when we remove the training wheels and see if ???renewables??? can roll on without them.
One of Big Sun???s biggest crutches, the solar investment tax credit, was supposed to be a temporary, short-term benefit that now has been extended through 2016. We already see the lobbying campaign aimed at another extension ginning-up. These industry-generated job stats will be used as one more rationale for keeping the gravy train going, even if it???s average taxpayers and ratepayers who get taken for a ride.
Of course solar jobs are growing faster than coal jobs. One industry is politically popular and pampered, while the other has been turned by critics into a pariah, which must be banished, effectively regulated out of existence, in order to placate climate alarmists. What other result would one expect when government policies actively promote one energy technology, while punishing the other?
And here???s a bit of context missing from such comparisons. American coal workers still generate nearly 40 percent of America???s electricity, while their solar counterparts produce less than 1 percent. That the solar industry requires so many workers to produce so little power (and unreliable power at that) just highlights its inefficiency relative to conventional rivals. It also helps explain why it costs so much more.
Don???t get me wrong. It???s always nice to see more Americans getting jobs. I???d just feel much better about the solar jobs situation if they didn’t depend so much on a corporate welfare-based business model.
Sean Paige is a senior fellow with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, which operates SolarSecrets.org.