By Guest Columnist DON MORELAND, chairman of the Georgia Solar Energy Association and a local business owner
If there is one thing on everybody’s mind these days, it seems to be: “What types of jobs will there be for working people now and into the future?”
A new report suggests one part of the solution. Jobs in Georgia’s solar industry jumped 23 percent from 2015 to 2016, totaling nearly 4,000 jobs last year.
Georgia’s job growth in this sector is just a tick behind the 25 percent job growth the industry saw nationwide. These are good jobs that can’t be outsourced overseas, paying a median wage of $26 per hour nationwide.
All in all, the Solar Jobs Census 2016, from The Solar Foundation (TSF) counted over 260,000 Americans working in the solar industry in 2016, contributing $154 billion to the U.S. economy. That’s the same number of Americans who work in the natural gas industry and nearly twice the number working in the coal industry. Solar job growth is a ray of good news at a time when many Americans are concerned about jobs and the economy.
The metro Atlanta area is the heart of Georgia’s growing solar industry. In fact, out of the country’s 382 metropolitan areas, the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta metropolitan statistical area is ranked in the top 25 for solar jobs. This is great news for a city that Forbes ranked as one of the country’s top technology meccas, just ahead of Portland, Ore., in the No. 3 slot.
But urban centers like Atlanta don’t tell the whole story.
Georgia’s booming utility-scale solar development, ranked 12th in the U.S., has boosted the economies of our rural counties in the form of property and ad valorem taxes.
In Mitchell County, the Camilla Solar Farm is Georgia’s second-largest solar development project and the county’s third-largest economic investment. The Pelham-based solar farm is estimated to infuse $300,000 in funding to local schools every year.
With two utility-scale solar installations recently built by Southern Power in Taylor County, permit fees and property taxes are expected to bring $40 million in funding to the county over the next 20 years.
As these two examples show, utility-scale solar has been a boon for our entire state’s economy.
While the majority of Georgia’s solar growth to this point has been in large, utility-scale solar farms, the future growth of the industry almost certainly will be in the residential and commercial rooftop solar sector, which is only beginning to take root here. In fact, TSF’s report predicts that Georgia’s solar industry will grow by another 25 percent in 2017, and local experts see residential solar as the greatest opportunity.
Solar programs such as the popular Solarize program, which helps local communities use group purchasing power to reduce the cost of solar for homeowners and businesses, have clearly demonstrated the promise of rooftop solar.
Solarize Tybee was the first such project in Georgia and other localities such as Athens and Decatur-DeKalb have also taken advantage of the program, with great success. Together, Solarize programs comprise over 50 percent of residential solar installations in Georgia since 2015. Solarize programs demonstrate the viability of rooftop solar in Georgia and show a path forward to sustaining and expanding the excellent job opportunities and economic growth we have seen so far.
Solar energy works here in Georgia. Solar creates jobs and contributes to our economy with considerable room to continue to grow. Supportive policies such as the recent “Solar Power Free-Market Financing Act,” are a great start, but policymakers can do more to remove superfluous barriers and promote a free market environment so solar can continue to blossom into a significant job-creating sector for Georgia.
Note to readers: In addition to his chairmanship of GSEA president, Don Moreland is the founder of Solar CrowdSource, a community-based initiative reducing the costs of solar. He began working in the solar industry in 2011, developing utility-scale and distributed generation solar PV projects.