Solar jobs are on the upswing, and while much of the attention has focused on the picturesque sight of solar installers rambling over rooftops, the market for “invisible” solar jobs is also getting hotter. That includes employment in solar financing, marketing, software and a whole raft of back office jobs that are needed to help accelerate the mass adoption of solar energy.
The Energy Department has just one such accelerator program in the works, called Catalyst. CleanTechnica covered the launch of Catalyst last year, and earlier this month we had a chance to catch up with Dr. Lidija Sekaric, acting director of the Energy Department’s Solar Energy Technologies Office during the program’s second round. We’re happy to bring her insights about Catalyst to you in this exclusive interview.
Solar Jobs “As Fast As Possible”
For those of you new to the solar jobs topic, it’s helpful to recall that until a few years ago employment in the solar field was hard to come by. That was primarily because solar technology was expensive and inaccessible to most energy users except for astronauts, do-it-yourselfers, and perhaps a few odd members of the one percent.
More recently, lower solar costs have been pushing more employment opportunities. However, the industry is still bumping up against a wall. While the cost of solar modules is sinking, the aforementioned invisible or “soft” costs remain stubbornly high, as Sekaric explains:
There has been very, very rapid cost reduction that has happened in the hardware space, especially modules, which used to be a very big fraction of the cost.
The learning rate [has been slower] in the non-hardware space, that is sometimes called balance of system or soft costs…Catalyst tries to solve exactly that tough problem. Now 70 percent of a system’s cost is non-hardware.
Catalyst is designed specifically to enable a kind of rapid-response public support for innovative solutions, in comparison to conventional government funding procedures that can be prohibitively long and complicated for startups:
We try to follow the industry as it’s developing…and try to help innovators at the right stage. One is that it is an open innovation program, and so we take the ideas and from the community of innovators and the second one is a very rapid scale-up and selection of projects.
There are many different angles from which to attack soft costs, as Sekaric emphasizes:
Trying to do that as fast as possible and in as many places as possible and as innovatively as possible is what Catalyst tries to do.
As for how fast is fast, Catalyst is designed to attract innovators and provide them with support to get from the stage of defining a problem and conceiving a solution, all the way to generating a minimum viable product they can pitch to investors, all within 90 days.
Solar Jobs From Big Thinkers
In its second round, Catalyst is seeking innovative business solutions to drive down soft costs with the goal of helping to build a software infrastructure for the solar industry that leverages automation and data, with a focus on buildings. Part of the challenge is that many talented people in those fields are being lured off by tech titans such as Apple, Google, and Facebook.
Catalyst attempts to lure innovators over to the solar side by offering the chance to participate in a high profile national program, and to have a direct collaborative impact on the quality of life as the US transitions from a potentially catastrophic fossil economy to a more sustainable model.
Sekaric also notes that in order to attract innovators, Catalyst does not assign problems out. Instead, participants come in with their own unique perspective on the obstacles to solar adoption. Sekaric explains that the result is a wide net:
This set of  companies represents a really wide solutions to the problem of soft costs.
Some of them are trying to solve the problem of accessing finance for solar development, some of them are trying to lower the cost of customer acquisition. It’s a really, really wide range of problems…each one of those problems is really important.
This set of companies is moving to the next phase, in which they will be judged by a very distinguished set of panelists that will be announced soon…We’re excited about all of them.
Relatedly, Sekaric points out that in the current field of 19 Catalyst finalists, many of the companies have a social benefit mission focusing on community solar, revolving loans, and other new business models that are designed to increase access to solar energy across more income levels — and increased access means more solar jobs.
You can catch video pitches for all 19 solar products on the Catalyst website. The companies will be working on their prototypes until November 30 and then you can guess which ones will win a share of $500,000 in additional funding to get their companies to the next stage when they’re judged at the Energy Department’s “Demo Day” event in Philadelphia on December 10.
Speaking Of Solar Jobs…
Speaking of solar jobs, the Energy Department is just one of several major federal agencies that are supporting growth in the solar jobs sector. In that regard we were very interested in that moment during this week’s Republican presidential primary debate when US Senator Ted Cruz promised that as President, his signature economic growth plan involves abolishing the entire Energy Department along with several other federal agencies.
If that sounds a bit harsh, consider that a President Cruz would only abolish the Energy Department once. The Commerce Department, in contrast, would be abolished twice.
As for why the Energy Department should be abolished at all, Senator Cruz did not make that clear during the debate. However, since he is on record criticizing the Obama Administration for picking “energy winners and losers,” it’s a good guess that he is no fan of the Energy Department’s support for renewable energy in general, and solar energy in particular. In terms of economic growth, the Energy Department is at best a useless appendage, kind of like a national appendix or a sixth toe, and at worst it is a significant obstacle.
Assuming that is the case, then we only fault Senator Cruz for not being truly committed to his plan. He should not have stopped at the Energy Department, or the Commerce Department (twice!), or the two other agencies he singled out during the debate, those being the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For Senator Cruz’s plan to achieve the full force of effectiveness — meaning an end to this business of picking energy winners and losers — President Cruz should certainly abolish the Department of Agriculture, which has been creating new solar jobs by funding solar projects in rural communities (the Agriculture Department’s funding initiatives for biogas recovery and biofuel production should also get the heave-ho).
Senator Cruz also inexplicably left the US Army out of his plan. Through its Office of Energy Initiatives and the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Army has become one of the nation’s most important single drivers of the domestic solar industry (and by extension, solar jobs) through massive utility scale solar and rooftop solar projects at domestic bases. That’s all in addition to the Army’s growing interest in the off-base uses of solar energy.
If Senator Cruz abolishes the Army, then to be fair he should also abolish the Navy and the Air Force, both of which have been creating solar jobs by investing in solar energy as well as biofuel and to a much lesser extent, wind energy.
While we’re doing Senator Cruz this favor by filling in the blanks that would cripple his economic plan before it even gets off the ground, let’s not forget the US Marine Corps, which has been pushing the market for portable, wearable and deployable solar energy. He should also do something about the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, which is very interested in transformational solar R&D.
Taking a cue from Senator Cruz, let’s also go back and abolish the Navy and the Air Force again. In addition to fostering the solar market at the user end, both the Navy and the Air Force have become important funders behind cutting-edge research for next-generation solar technology that is taking place right now in universities and laboratories all over the country.
Finally, according to Senator Cruz’s plan, it’s also time for the National Science Foundation to go. The NSF was established in 1950 in the aftermath of World War II, when policy makers realized that the US had to keep its science chops burnished in order to keep up with the rest of the developed nations. It has been supported by Republicans and Democrats alike since then, but apparently this is yet another federal agency that throws taxpayer dollars at game changing solar energy research leading to the creation of new solar jobs, so it really should get the old heave-ho.
If we stilled missed anything, drop us a note in the comment thread.
Image (screenshot) via Energy.gov.