Bigger than Coal? Gov Brown touts solar jobs in California economy

150 150 John Guenther

Solar panels at Nellis Air Force Base. (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force)

Was Gov. Jerry Brown making another classic Jerry Brown-ism flying off his cuff when he said today more people now work in the solar industry than in coal. Brown made the comment as the keynote speaker at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Annual Public Policy Luncheon in Santa Clara.

The answer is, well, it’s possible. Whatever the final numbers are, here’s the rub: It’s important for the California economy and it’s always important to look closer.

Stats reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Mining Association show in 2011 around 86,000 people were employed in the coal industry.

While the BLS hasn’t traditionally gathered solar jobs numbers (they’re working on it), the National Solar Foundation, dropped preliminary results of their annual solar industry survey today. It says that 119,016 people were employed in solar nationally in 2012, up from 100,237 in 2011.

The NMA has countered that the coal stats don’t include contractors which represent 25 percent of the coal workforce.

But,  coal has had a hard go of it lately for sure, due to a number of factors, one of them being a significant number of utilities switching to natural gas because of market forces.

Despite its growth, solar has had its own trouble with market forces lately. Competition from solar manufacturers in China dropped prices of panels by 75 percent, says a story out today from KQED on the possibility of a solar trade war.

But, one of the sources quoted in the story–Danny Kennedy, president of Sungevity, a solar installation company in Oakland–reminds us it’s important to consider what’s going on in the entire value chain of a sector, not just focus on the manufacturing piece:

“There’s more job density in the sales, finance, installation and maintenance end of the value chain than there is in the factory. It’s probably a ratio of three to one.”

Another great example of the value chain is in California’s agriculture sector. Glenda Humiston of the USDA Rural Development department told us that California’s ag value chain, including not just farmers but also lawyers and engineers, represents 182,000 jobs and generates $630 billion a year.

And while solar grabbed some negative press this year thanks to the folding of Solyndra, California is still number one state in solar jobs.

All that said, if we want the state to recover and keep growing beyond the Great Recession, it’s vital to make common sense changes to help manufacturing in California, be it solar or not solar. In last month’s California jobs report, manufacturing and government job losses were the biggest sectors holding back gains, despite large private jobs increases.

Good news: we’re working on it. The California Economic Summit has been working in Action Teams to support efforts like streamlining of regulations to help startups and small businesses thrive and innovate right here.

Stay tuned for more info on our Progress Tracker. Follow us on Twitter and Like us on Facebook to keep up and join the conversation. 




John Guenther

All stories by: John Guenther