Solar energy’s future in Ohio is not as cloudy as you might think: Employment in that sector of the state’s economy grew 31 percent in 2013, elevating Ohio into the No. 8 spot nationally — up from No. 10 a year ago — for solar-powered jobs, according to a new report.
The data is part of the fourth annual National Solar Jobs Census published by the nonprofit Solar Foundation, a Washington-based supporter of the solar industry.
The group claims the United States has 142,698 workers whose jobs are directly connected to the solar industry, up 20 percent from a year ago with a growth rate that is tens higher than the overall U.S. economy. Some 3,800 of those jobs are in Ohio, up from 2,900 in 2012.
It also claims employment in the solar industry has grown 53 percent — with nearly 50,000 new solar jobs — since the foundation began tracking solar-based job statistics in 2010. The largest growth has been in the business of installing solar panels, which has seen a 60 percent increase over those years, the group said.
Most of Ohio’s solar-based jobs are in manufacturing, sales, and project development. The same is true for Michigan, which slipped from No. 9 in the country for solar-related jobs to No. 14.
California was once again far and away No. 1. It had nearly six times as many solar-related jobs, 47,223, as its closest competitor, Arizona, which had 8,558 in 2013.
Statistics on all 50 states can be found on the Solar Foundation’s interactive map at www.SolarStates.org.
“Our state solar jobs research this year clearly shows that solar energy can be harnessed anywhere, and that growth rates are not necessarily associated with geography, total amount of sunshine, or political party,” said Andrea Luecke, Solar Foundation executive director and president.
The research bucks the public perception generated by such high-profile failures of California-based Solyndra and Ohio-based Willard & Kelsey Solar Group. The latter, based in Perrysburg, defaulted on more than $10 million in-state loans.
“The sky’s the limit on solar, but right now, only a small fraction of our energy comes from the sun,” said Christian Adams, Environment Ohio state associate. “To take it to the next level, we need to rally around a bigger vision on solar while defending and improving the programs that work today.”
Bill Spratley, executive director of Green Energy Ohio — the state’s largest advocacy group for renewable energy — said he’s not surprised by the Solar Foundation’s numbers, based on the state’s legacy as a parts supplier for many industries.
“I’ve always been skeptical of the Solar Foundation because I always thought they understated Ohio,” he said.
It’s difficult to tell how many additional nuts and bolts are manufactured because of the rising demand for wind, solar, and other forms of renewable power, Mr. Spratley, a member of the American Solar Energy Society, said.
Such is the nature of today’s globalized economy. Many parts are made in Ohio, but it’s hard tracking what’s imported and exported from Ohio and how parts made in one area are used for installations elsewhere — both domestically and globally.
“There’s so much stuff going in the ground, and it’s coming from so many places that, honestly, it’s hard to follow now,” Mr. Spratley said. “The government should be tracking it better.”
The advantage of having the government do that would be better data for development strategy.
“This becomes, to me, an economic development issue,” he said.
Former University of Toledo physics department chairman Al Compaan said he is impressed by the gains solar energy has made in comparison to job losses in the coal-fired power industry.
Mr. Compaan is a solar advocate who said the public needs to continue to support Ohio’s renewable energy law, which has established modest benchmarks for utility investments in solar power.
The law has drawn scorn from some conservative lawmakers who consider it too onerous on utilities. Efforts to repeal it have been put on hold, although efforts continue to soften it.
The Solar Foundation’s latest census shows New England is home to more than 25,000 jobs, representing nearly 20 percent of the total solar U.S. work force despite being in a cloudy area.
The Toledo area has gained national attention, too, for its investment in solar at the University of Toledo, as well as with major employers such as the First Solar LLC plant in Perrysburg Township and the Isofoton plant in Defiance — all of which gives advocates such as Mr. Spratley inspiration that solar will have a bright future, despite a few business failures along the way.
“It’s just booming,” Mr. Spratley said. “The face of climate change is not the polar bear. It’s the guy down the street who put solar panels on his house. We need to get those people to tell their stories.”
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.