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Solar power putting Americans back to work

Rhone Resch, President and CEO, Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)

In the last two years, during one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history, the solar industry has become the fastest growing industry in the energy sector—and one of the fastest growing industries in any sector in the U.S.

In 2010, the solar industry grew at a rate of 67 percent and now employs over 100,000 Americans across all 50 states. From 2009 to 2010, we doubled employment in the U.S., creating almost 50,000 new jobs while most other industries were contracting.

We are putting plumbers, electricians, and carpenters who lost their jobs due to the collapse of the housing market, back to work. We are building new factories and providing existing manufacturers with a new large customer. And we are providing opportunities for small businesses to reinvent themselves and be part of one of the most exciting changes to our economy to occur in a generation.

The U.S. solar industry expanded at a consistent 50 percent annual growth rate over the last four years. And in the last year, the U.S. solar industry grew from $3.6 billion in 2009 to $6.0 billion in 2010, a growth rate of 67 percent.

Photovoltaic installations fully doubled in 2010 in the U.S., while construction began on dozens of massive utility-scale solar power plants that will be completed over the next several years, employing thousands of Americans and bringing billions of dollars of economic investment to the southern half of the U.S.

But we can’t rely on the status quo. China, Germany, Italy, and Japan are investing heavily in solar, and they are beating us. After inventing solar electric technology at Bell Labs and decades of leadership, the U.S. is playing catch up, and the competition is stiff.

Today the U.S. is a net exporter of solar energy goods and services. But this will not last long unless the right policies are adopted.

As mentioned, the U.S. solar industry employs over 100,000 Americans. These workers range from small-town installers and roofers to electricians, plumbers, construction workers, and engineers.

Take for instance, Justin Cox, a technical support rep at Sungevity, a California-based company that operates in six states. Up until two years ago, Justin was a soldier. When he came back after serving in Iraq, he found a job in the solar industry and now applies the leadership and technical skills he gained in the Army to expand his company.

The U.S. solar industry is welcoming back thousands of veterans like Justin with new opportunity. And these aren’t just jobs—they are careers.

The growth of the industry and creation of jobs is evident in all states. For example, there is a 21 MW solar photovoltaic project near Blythe, California. This is one of the largest PV projects operating in the U.S. The project developer and module supplier for the project is an American company that manufactures in the Midwest with over 1,000 American workers.

But solar power’s reach goes far beyond California.

You can see the industry’s impact in Texas, with the MEMC polysilicon plant in Pasadena and the new Blue Wing Solar Power plant built for Duke Energy in San Antonio. Solar means thousands of jobs in that great state.

And in Clarksville, Tennessee, Hemlock Semicon-ductor is building a $1.2 billion polysilicon manufac-turing facility to supply the solar industry. This plant will employ up to 1,500 workers during construction and 1,000 workers for permanent operations when completed later this year.

How do we keep this kind of solar job growth going? Much depends on the industry itself, our ability to innovate—and plain old fashioned hard work. But federal policy also plays a key role. We need policy that will help ensure our domestic industry grows and not only creates jobs, but reduces our dependence on foreign sources of energy while improving our energy security.

To succeed, we need tax policies such as the Section 1603 Treasury program to be continued and incentives for solar manufacturing restored.

We also need policies that facilitate financing for clean energy technologies that cannot obtain financing in the commercial marketplace, such as large scale nuclear and utility scale solar energy projects. To support these industries Congress should consider a variety of financing mechanisms, including the Clean Energy Development Administration.

In conclusion, SEIA, our 1,000 member companies, and our workforce of 100,000 strong is eager to work with Congress on important policy initiatives to continue to grow the solar industry and solar jobs.


For the Record is an edited excerpt of a presentation made by Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade in March 2011.

May/June 2011