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There Are Now Twice As Many Solar Jobs As Coal Jobs In the US (vox.com) 415

According to a new survey from the nonprofit Solar Foundation, the solar industry now employs more than 260,000 people even though solar power provides just 1.3 percent of America's electricity. Last year, the industry accounted for one of every 50 new jobs nationwide. "Solar employs slightly more workers than natural gas, over twice as many as coal, over three times that of wind energy, and almost five times the number employed in nuclear energy," the report notes. "Only oil/petroleum has more employment (by 38%) than solar." Vox reports: This chart breaks it down by job type. The majority of solar jobs are in installation, with a median wage of $25.96 per hour. The residential market, which is the most labor-intensive, accounts for 41 percent of employment, the commercial market 28 percent, and the utility-scale market the rest. Now, mind you, comparing solar and coal is a bit unfair. Solar is growing fast from a tiny base, which means there's a lot of installation work to be done right now, whereas no one is building new coal plants in the U.S. anymore. (Quite the contrary: Many older coal plants have been closing in recent years, thanks to stricter air-pollution rules and cheap natural gas.) So solar is in a particularly labor-intensive phase at the moment. Still, it's worth thinking through what these numbers mean. One argument you could make about these numbers is that all this employment is, in a way, inefficient. If the solar industry hopes to keep pushing costs down and become a major U.S. energy source, it will likely need to become less labor-intensive over time. But labor costs are only one way to think about the issue. There's also a political angle here. America's energy system is inextricable from policy and politics, and an industry that creates a lot of jobs is inevitably going to have more influence over that process.
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There Are Now Twice As Many Solar Jobs As Coal Jobs In the US

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  • the jobs are gone. Just like everything else.

    • by PoopJuggler ( 688445 ) on Tuesday February 07, 2017 @11:43PM (#53823653)
      Yeah, just like how there's no automobile jobs now that everyone has a car.
      • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @02:23AM (#53824139)
        As I said last time, this is not a positive stat for solar. Coal accounts for 33% of U.S. electricity production [eia.gov], vs 0.6% for solar. So if solar employs 2x as many people as coal, that means solar is 2 * 33% / 0.6% = 110x more labor-intensive than coal per kWh of electricity generated. If anything, this is a great argument against solar power. They need to get those labor figures way, way, way down (two orders of magnitude) if they want solar to become an economically viable (without subsidies) source of electricity.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          This argument going on depends on what the jobs are.

          There are 'seasonal', 'temp', and 'full time'.

          Season is every year industry X needs Y+/- Q number of people. They are every few months out of a job but its mostly OK they get it back again. Think theme park worker in New York vs Florida. In NY they close the theme park in winter whereas in FL they never close.
          Temp is job needs to be done one time need X people. At end of job they are out of a job. Think construction worker.
          Full time is job does not en

        • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @02:57AM (#53824203)

          Coal accounts for 33% of U.S. electricity production, vs 0.6% for solar.

          That is a misleading stat, since NO new coal plants are being built, while solar installations are growing rapidly.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward

            This same BS was posted a week ago here on /. It is a misleading stat as they use different rules for what counts as a solar job vs a job in coal. For instance, they count a truck drive who occasionally delivers a solar panel as a 'supported job', but they never included those types of 'supported jobs' in the coal numbers.

        • by h33t l4x0r ( 4107715 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @03:16AM (#53824261)
          That's the wrong way to look at it. Let's take a look at how much power $100 worth of solar panels generates over 20 or 30 years vs $100 worth of coal.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            Okay, let's.

            A 3KW solar system will run in the $5K+ range

            $5K of coal is in the timezone of 725MW-hr.

            New Orleans gets about 2650 hours of sunlight per year, so 20 years is 53K hours of sunlight. 3KW for 53K hours is about 160MW-hr over 20 years. 240MW-hr over 30 years.

            So, $5K of solar will give you about 2/9 the energy that the same amount of coal will give you over 20 years, or 1/3 of the coal over 30 years.

            And that's best case (right now), since the 5K cost for the solar is a minimum, not an average

            • by necro81 ( 917438 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @10:23AM (#53825379) Journal

              $5K of coal is in the timezone of 725MW-hr

              Since you haven't provided any links to back your data, I have to ask: is that energy value just a conversion of the raw BTUs, or into electricity delivered to end users. It's a really important difference, since most coal plants are only 25-35% efficient in creating electricity from raw heat. If you are quoting the raw energy content as heat, then I'd argue you need to discount it by a factor of 3-4x, since most coal is burned to make electricity, and PV creates electricity directly.

              Here's another approach: the wholesale price for electricity is, depending on the region, something like $25-50/MWh [source [eia.gov]]. Unfortunately, the breakdown doesn't tell us the cost for each source (coal, nuke, gas, etc.), but let's argue that it's on the low end: $25/MWh. That captures the cost not only of the fuel, but also the operating costs of the plant, profit, paying off the loans to build the plant, etc. On the other hand, a large pile of coal is pretty useless for generating electricity without all the rest of those costs, so I'd say it's fair to include them.

              At $25/MWh, a $5k purchase would get you 200 MWh of electricity, which makes PV look much more favorable.

        • Given that approximately zero people are required to actually generate that 0.6% of solar power, I'd say coal is the one looking inefficient - look at all the manpower required simply to keep a coal power plant maintained and running, let alone constantly fed with coal that's been surveyed, mined, processed, and transported to the plant.

          Maybe try comparing manpower needed by each to actually add a MW of capacity, instead of to generate a MWh - then you might have a comparison that doesn't look so appalling

        • Tge jobs are about installing new power plants.
          So your analysis makes no sense.

        • Coal accounts for 33% of U.S. electricity production, vs 0.6% for solar.

          Just as an FYI; about five years ago, Coal accounted for over 40%.
          =Smidge=

    • by skids ( 119237 )

      Once the panels are installed, there will be jobs installing the storage facilities, and after that, there will be no electricity bill other than equipment maintenance costs, so less reason to work as many hours.

    • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @12:55AM (#53823931)

      the jobs are gone. Just like everything else.

      Insightful enough.

      But that's just how these things work. Once upon a time, coal was king. But now it's falling. When the NatGas Frackers came through my area, they employed a lot of people for a few years. Then the wells were built, and they moved to another state.

      Even if by some Executive fiat, we moved back to coal, we'd have to deal with the combined effects of automation and that the rest of the world is dropping it. So we won't get exports.

      In other words, like you said, the jobs are gone.

      But people tend not to think much beyond next month. When the Frackers came to the area, all you heard about was jerbs, Jerbs, JERBS! As if Fracking was the majic pill that was going to give these folks jobs for the rest of their days.

      But the wells were drilled, new pipelines were laid, collctors and compressors, and the system doesn't need many people to keep it up and running - at least compared to the initial jobs.

      So yeah, solar industry jobs wil probably follow a similar pattern. A huge boom, then trailing off. The days of thinking that a person is going to do one job, the same job, live in the same town in the same houhse your entire life, and not have to learn to do anything else is no longer a rational idea. Things change too quickly.

      • by bankman ( 136859 )

        So yeah, solar industry jobs wil probably follow a similar pattern. A huge boom, then trailing off. The days of thinking that a person is going to do one job, the same job, live in the same town in the same houhse your entire life, and not have to learn to do anything else is no longer a rational idea. Things change too quickly.

        You're absolutely right, it's just rather unfortunate that the (vocational) education system doesn't prepare people to be this flexible. Apart from hard skills which can be trained,

    • by mlts ( 1038732 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @01:27AM (#53824027)

      Not really. Solar panels are becoming as tied to a construction project as roofing materials, and other basic building supplies. Even after buildings are retofitted, there are always new things coming up, new technologies that are iffish now, but are maturing (tinted windows which may run at 1/20 the wattage a normal panel, but with the sheer square footage on a south side of a building, it might be worth doing, when the price for the tint becomes that cheap.)

      Solar plants will continue to expand. With HVDC transmission methods, there is a lot of desert that can be used for solar, and with roughly 3.5% transmission loss per 1000 km, this can be a viable way to provide a few GW to a city. If the transmission loss is too great, it isn't too difficult to pull CO2 from the air and make ethanol, propane, synthetic diesel (Audi has pioneered this), or something similar as a way to fuel non-electric vehicles and stay carbon negative. Heck, with enough power and a source of water, thermal depolymerization becomes possible, which is an extremely good way to dispose of plastic and have a usable resource for fuel or manufacturing.

      Solar technology will only improve as well. Panels may be near maximums of energy output, but better MPPT controllers and energy storage will be the focal point eventually as the bottleneck moves from panels.

      The nice thing about solar is that it is stupidly easy to set up compared to any other energy source [1], and it is relatively maintenance free, because everything is solid state on the grid, and off the grid, the only component that wears out are batteries.

      [1]: A cast off car battery, a surplus panel, a $8 PWM charger from eBay, and some 12 volt light bulbs can power the lights on a detached building indefinitely. I don't know any other energy source that can sit there and do that. The Aussies go a step further and stick refrigerators with solar panels on them in the middle of nowhere so they can get a cold one even if on the back 40. I don't know any other energy source that can do that... nuclear perhaps, but with all the fear about nuclear, you will never see a basketball-sized reactor just for powering a small building.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        It's really too bad nuclear is so demonized. It's the best solution for energy needs right now. Reactors can now be scaled down quite a lot, and a self-contained virtually maintenance-free reactor could produce many megawatts of power for 30 - 50 years before requiring replacement. Not to mention some of the excess heat could be used to heat homes and hot water tanks which would make it even more practical.

        • It's really too bad nuclear is so demonized. It's the best solution for energy needs right now. Reactors can now be scaled down quite a lot, and a self-contained virtually maintenance-free reactor could produce many megawatts of power for 30 - 50 years before requiring replacement. Not to mention some of the excess heat could be used to heat homes and hot water tanks which would make it even more practical.

          The problem with nuclear is always going to be the same. It is a technology that can fail catastrophically and render large tracts of land uninhabitable when it does. One can argue that if a nuclear plant is properly run and safety standards are enforced then nuclear is a viable option and that is true. The flaw in that argument is that it only takes one ambitious corporate weasel trying to suck up to his bosses by cutting costs through nixing safety procedures, buying sub standard parts or cutting personne

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 )

      the jobs are gone. Just like everything else.

      And once the coal is gone those jobs are gone ... and the mountain tops, hill sides trees and wildlife are gone from surface/strip mining and the water has been polluted from runoff and the air is sooty and hazy from burning the coal. Actually, I guess the out-of-work coal miners can go on to restore the environment and clean the water - assuming (a) they (and we) haven't all died off and (b) the EPA is still around to make someone clean it all up -- and the taxpayers will pay for it.

      Problem solved.

    • Right. We should support coal because of the ongoing jobs of destroying mountains in order to burn them. And solar panels never ever need to be replaced or serviced.

      This might be the dumbest argument I've ever seen.

  • That's what happens when the last President, along with the last Democrat presidential nominee, said that he was going to bankrupt the industry.

  • I always ask, how many dollars per nose.

    There are *probably* more people working for fast food than in coal... There isn't any money in it though.

    • I always ask, how many dollars per nose.

      There are *probably* more people working for fast food than in coal... There isn't any money in it though.

      Why do you have to ask? That information is right there in the summary, unasked for.

      • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

        by PopeRatzo ( 965947 )

        Why do you have to ask? That information is right there in the summary, unasked for.

        Wait, you mean we have to read the summaries now? You're one of those fact-nazis, aren't you? Always trying to supply actual information where it's not wanted.

  • by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) on Tuesday February 07, 2017 @11:43PM (#53823651) Homepage

    I remember this story from when it was posted last week. [slashdot.org]

  • "Many older coal plants have been closing in recent years, thanks to stricter air-pollution rules and cheap natural gas."

    How often is it economic to do power station coal to gas conversions? Clearly you need to be near a gas pipeline. Can you just replace coal fired boilers with gas fired boilers, or is it more complicated? If instead you're using gas turbines, there is much less commonality between the old and converted power station, and less reason to convert rather than start with a green field.

    • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @01:33AM (#53824035)

      How often is it economic to do power station coal to gas conversions?

      It isn't.
      I was involved on the edge of one of those proposals in 1994. Putting gas burners in a boiler is a huge waste of fuel and in the long run just gutting the building and putting gas turbines in makes a vast amount more sense than all of the very difficult mucking about with water, steam, etc you have to do with a large thermal power station. Within a very short time running costs of a retrofitted plant would exceed the cost of getting gas turbines. With the idea of reusing the site we couldn't even use the existing stack because the exhaust temperature of the gas turbines would be a lot higher. In the end new turbines were placed elsewhere since selling the site made more sense than trying to reuse a small portion of a very large site, and we would get very little savings by having existing walls, roof and an antiquated switchyard.

      Also I think the bit you quoted is simplistic and misleading with the source either not being entirely honest or not having a good grasp on a very major factor.
      The plants are closing because they are old and nearly all of the ones closing have exceeded their design life but are kept going by increasingly expensive repairs. Parts of boilers don't cost a lot to fix since they can be done a few tubes at a time, turbine blades can be replaced a few at a time, but turbine rotors are a different story. A combination of heat and stress means they will be dangerous to use eventually with replacement as the only option (and a waiting list of years for a new one - though spares are often kept). Those old plants are going to have to be replaced entirely with something new, and since nobody wants to outlay the huge amount of capital for a large thermal power station they get replaced with stuff you can buy piecemeal instead of putting down the cash for gigawatts of capacity at once.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      The problem for that is a nation needs lots of cheap gas. Importing e.g. a pipeline exposes a nation to balance of payment issues, international politics and hard currency questions.
      If a nation has lots of gas, export might be a worth more than just selling it cheap for local power.
      So if gas is cheap, cant be exported at a profit and a nation really wants brand new gas turbines?
      Who to buy from? A brand that has a history of gas, nuclear and other turn key turbine builds that are delivered on time, wi
  • by Chas ( 5144 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @12:32AM (#53823823) Homepage Journal

    Like hell!

    Do you have any idea how BIG the install base for solar is going to get?

    Right now, solar and solar + battery are at the worst it's ever going to be again.

    There's, quite literally, enough first-time install base out there to keep every person currently doing it until they die of old age, with a HUGE backlog of jobs.

    And while the panels eventually drop off in efficiency after 20-30 years, there will be enough retrofit work in a couple decades to keep the industry going strong for pretty much EVER.

    Not to mention a bit of extra capacity planned into an install can keep an install self-sufficient for decades beyond the initial lifespan.

    Another generation or two of improvements in panel construction, battery engineering (with accompanying drops in price) and management software, and we should start seeing fully-integrated solar power and solar power+solar water heating "kits" hit the market. And that's when solar is REALLY going to take off.

  • These employment numbers are an anomaly. If they were actual sustainable job, they would be the most inefficient energy jobs on earth. Coal and natural gas account for most of US electricity, with nuclear and hydro falling in 3rd and 4th respectively. Renewables (not including hydro) account for 7% of total generation, with solar at just 0.6%. So more solar workers than coal workers sweat away open a boondoggle: producing just .6% of the power America consumes.
  • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @01:06AM (#53823961)
    There would be more jobs but ideological opposition to solar meant that all the US funded research and development ended up being used for free by the Chinese to make panels to sell to us.
    If Carter hadn't put solar panels on the White House and Reagan hadn't taken them down to show how politically different he was maybe they would be seen as the space age technology they are instead of something "green" to hate just to toe a party line.
  • So the 2015 numbers [eia.gov] are 33% coal and 0.6% solar. Or in other words, about 50 times as much coal power nationwide. Normalizing it that way, the solar industry takes 100 times as many workers to produce the same every as coal.

    Now, you can argue that solar is a nascent industry and that a lot of the labor is in the build-out. But for now, this is a pretty silly (and expensive) sideshow.

    • Coal gets an instant return on investment, you chuck it into the fire and you get heat. Solar has a future payout. It's hard to believe that you can't grasp that concept but let's put it another way: nobody is starting new coal mining operations, but plenty of smart investors are getting into solar. Why do you think that is?
  • by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @02:14AM (#53824123)

    If you're counting the work involved in wiring Solar panels into peoples' homes as Solar jobs,
    then you should be counting the work involved in installing normal Electrical service into peoples' homes as Coal/Natgas jobs.

  • by RightwingNutjob ( 1302813 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @02:25AM (#53824149)
    In a similar vein, I hypothesize that there'll be a whole lot more farming jobs once we drive "evil agribusiness" into the sea and go back to organic, cage-free subsistence farming. Every man for himself, plus a bunch of pig catchers to take the place of the cages.
  • by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Wednesday February 08, 2017 @03:19AM (#53824269)
    I think it under represents the jobs coal creates. There's pulmonologists, oncologists, climate scientists, lobbyists, politicians...

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