For local communities, the most compelling argument for the growth of oil and gas operations is the promise of jobs. But, as we’ve learned from the boom and bust in the Bakken over the last two years, explosive growth can occur, but oil jobs are not sustainable over the long term.
By contrast, the solar industry is growing at 20% per year, and this growth is likely sustainable, driven by substantial reductions in the cost of installation since 2010 and demand for alternative energy sources. As a result, solar is now an affordable energy source. And solar growth is not subject to the same booms and busts as oil extraction, because it is not dependent on volatility in the price of an external energy source.
In fact, according to the annual National Solar Jobs Census published this week by The Solar Foundation, solar jobs now exceed the number of oil and gas extraction jobs in the United States, and are unlikely to look back.
- As of November 2015, the solar industry in the United States employs nearly 209,000 solar workers, representing a growth rate of 20.2% since November 2014, the third consecutive year of 20% growth. Over the next 12 months, employers expect to see total employment in the solar industry increase by 14.7% to approximately 240,000 solar workers.
- By contrast, as of December 2015, there are 184,500 jobs in oil and gas extraction in the US, a decline of 7.6% from the previous December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The contrast in growth curves is unmistakable:
The growth in solar jobs is driven by demand for solar energy systems over the last decade. Since 2010, the year the Solar Foundation began taking an annual census, the growth in annual solar capacity installed has grown from 929 megawatts to 7,430 megawatts, an eightfold increase.
What’s important about these jobs, by contrast to oil and gas jobs, is that they are permanent, full time jobs. According to the Solar Foundation, of the 35,000 new soar workers in the last year, 83% are new positions, and 90% are totally dedicated to solar. As we’ve learned from the Bakken oil bust, oil and gas positions are temporary, driven by the boom and bust cycle of the industry.
The solar jobs that are being created are in large part new installation, as you can see from the chart below:
In 2015, 65% of the new jobs created were installation jobs, and what’s important about that is that jobs are local — eight in 10 solar installation firms report that their customers are located within the state.
You can download a copy of The Solar Foundation census by clicking here.
Implications for the Beartooth Front
The implications for local communities are clear, and elected officials in Carbon and Stillwater Counties would do well to take heed. The long-term impacts of a boom economy in oil and gas are not worth the short-term gains to the local economy. It is well documented that local economies that are heavily invested in oil and gas are left with higher crime rates, lower education rates, and hard hitting busts when the booms end.
What local officials should be concerned with is not chasing unrealistic dreams of riches, but managing the long-term preservation of a way of life. This means making sure that local oil and gas activities are well regulated in a way that protects the real economic backbone of the area: agriculture and ranching, tourism, and the natural resources that make a way of life possible.
This is why it is important for local officials to work with citizen groups that seek to establish local regulation of oil and gas. By managing the booms, the local way of life can be preserved and the local economy can be positioned to take full advantage of the steady growth of a different kind of economy.