The slumping US oil and gas industry has been reduced to a rolling employment disaster, and evidently the Obama Administration hopes to pick up some of the slack by accelerating growth in the solar jobs sector. Earlier this week, the US Energy Department announced a whopping $32 million solar funding opportunity that addresses multiple aspects of the solar industry, including white collar and R&D employment.
The funding comes under the agency’s SunShot Initiative, which aims to bring the cost of solar energy down to parity with fossil fuels, so let’s pick apart that white collar/R&D thing and see how that could push the SunShot goal along.
Soft Costs & Solar Jobs
The nitty gritty of the US solar industry is a hands-on endeavor that is taking place on rooftops and ground sites at the rate of a new connection every 2.5 minutes. That seems like a ripping pace, and it has translated into a white hot job-creating machine. However, when you get down to individual cases, a solar installation can be a cumbersome, months-long affair beset by bureaucratic and administrative delays. That all adds up to unnecessary “soft” costs.
SunShot has been tackling soft costs from a number of angles, and one strategy is to ensure that a trained, knowledgeable solar workforce is available at every step of the process, from site selection and design to permitting and final inspection.
That’s where the new solar jobs funding announcement comes in. Of the $32 million total, $12 million will go to programs that enhance the diversity of the solar workforce. That includes solar-trained and credentialed real estate professionals as well as white collar workers in the insurance, finance, and utility industries. Fire and safety professionals are also included in the new funding announcement.
The new funding dovetails with several ongoing SunShot solar jobs programs, including Solar Ready Vets, the Solar Instructor Training Network, and the Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment program.
Not for nothing, but according to its boosters, the notorious Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline was supposed to be a critical job-creating engine for the US. However, the project would result in only about 35 permanent positions. Contrast that with the Administration’s goal of training 75,000 solar workers by 2020, and you can see why the Keystone jobs argument is full of baloney.
Solar Jobs — But Wait, There’s More
Speaking of white collar solar jobs, the new $32 million package also includes $5 million for programs that ramp up data collection and sharing in the solar industry — for example, in electricity production and financial performance.
According to the Energy Department, the aim is to cut costs by making the solar industry transparent:
…This data has widespread use for key solar stakeholder groups including developers, utilities, inverter manufacturers, and financial institutions. The approximately three to six funded projects will create new capabilities that enable existing solar databases across the industry to interact more efficiently. By improving data access and establishing industry-wide standards for solar energy system performance, this effort will enable innovative new business solutions to increase solar energy adoption in the United States.
So, on top of the job training provided for in the $12 million part of the package, the new funding announcement is also geared toward boosting job growth in the data management industry. Software companies like the civic engagement specialist Accela are already jumping into the municipal solar permitting market, and the development of inter-industry standards will boost that trend.
Hard Costs & Solar Jobs
The new funding package also addresses solar hard costs. That’s fancyspeak for the cost of the solar cells, panels, and other hardware. SunShot addresses these costs in several ways — for example, by funding programs that drive down manufacturing costs.
Foundational and innovative R&D is also part of SunShot, and to that end the $32 million package includes up to $15 million for programs that help drive down the cost of concentrating solar power (CSP).
Specifically, the funds will go to at least seven, and possibly 10, new attempts to drive down the cost of the solar collecting field. That could include parabolic troughs, heliostats (special mirrors that focus solar energy on a point), and anything in between.
It’s worth noting that CSP has its critics, partly because these systems tend to be more complicated than straightup photovoltaic systems. However, the CSP field is advancing steadily and the Energy Department is among the CSP believers (ditto for micro wind turbines and fuel cell EVs, btw — just sayin’).
Where were we? Oh right, solar jobs. Every time the Energy Department pumps more money into R&D, that translates into continued, and new, employment for high-value jobs in solar research, which explains why the Energy Department lumped CSP development into its solar jobs announcement.
Getting back to that Keystone XL pipeline jobs thing, this may just be a total coincidence but the Energy Department’s solar jobs announcement follows on the heels of a video message that US Secretary of State delivered to a global business conference in Paris, in which Kerry announced the launch of a second Global Impact Economy Forum.
To be held this fall in the US, the forum will focus like a laser on showing how government can work with the private sector to accelerate renewable energy investment.
We’re thinking that the Obama Administration has basically given up trying to convince the fossil industry and its legislative allies to accept carbon pricing, and it’s going straight to the source: government and private sector investments that generate more clean energy — and more jobs.
In other words, the carbon pricing train may have left the station. Renewable energy is quickly becoming competitive with fossil fuels in markets around the globe, and advanced energy storage is pounding another nail in the coffin.
Image Credit (screenshot): Courtesy of US Department of Energy.
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