10 Mar 2017

Potential for new rooftop solar jobs in 12 Southeast states over the next 10 years: 533,000

Written by Jim Pierobon

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The relatively small rooftop solar industry has the potential to grow tremendously, creating lots of jobs, based on an analysis of data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Solar Energy Industries Association, and the Solar Foundation.

Twelve Southeastern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — could produce almost one-third of their electricity from rooftop solar installations, according to an NREL report.  Yes, that’s a lot:

  • It’s 300,000 megawatts of solar capacity, or 20 times the amount of solar installed in the U.S. last year.
  • Installing that much rooftop solar would yield more than 500,000 jobs in the Southeast over ten years, based on the number of U.S. solar jobs in 2016 and the number of megawatts of solar installed.

The NREL analysis evaluated the potential for solar on buildings with at least one unshaded roof plane that is nearly flat, or faces east, southeast, south, southwest, or west.  If any such roof plane could accommodate at least 1.5 kilowatts of solar panels, NREL modeled solar on that roof plane.  Summing across all buildings in the Southeast yields a technical potential of 302,600 megawatts of rooftop solar.  NREL found that nationwide, 66 percent of large building rooftop area is suitable for solar, versus 49 percent for medium-size buildings and 26 percent for small buildings.

The technical potential is simply what the laws of physics allow, combined with common sense—e.g., no north-facing panels.  (NREL did count west-facing panels, which have value for meeting late afternoon electricity demand, and east-facing panels, which are equally productive.)  NREL assumed an average solar panel efficiency of 16 percent, and noted that if panels averaging 20 percent efficiency were used, the solar potential would be 25 percent greater (because 20 is that much greater than 16).  At least three firms make solar panels exceeding 20 percent efficiency.

The technical potential is just a theoretical maximum.  Yet the economic potential, or the sum of all money-saving rooftop solar investments, may not be far behind, especially over the next ten years, as solar costs keep falling due to technology improvements and economies of scale.  Each year more building owners realize they can save money with rooftop solar, including, for example, Virginia school systems.

The Solar Foundation counted 260,077 U.S. solar workers in 2016, and the Solar Energy Industries Association reported 2016 U.S. solar installations of 14,626 megawatts.  Dividing the two yields 18 workers per megawatt of solar installed.

Finally, spacing out the installation of NREL’s 302,600 megawatts of Southeast rooftop solar over ten years would mean 30,260 megawatts of rooftop solar installed per year. Multiply that times 18 workers per megawatt and you get 533,000 jobs—for a ten-year period.  Jobs from utility-scale and community-scale solar would be additional.

Potential Rooftop Solar Jobs per State, Over Ten Years

StateRooftop Solar Technical Potential, in Megawatts (per NREL)Technical Potential per Year, for Ten Years, in Megawatts (Dividing Previous Column by 10)Potential Jobs, for Ten Years (Previous Column times 18 Jobs per Megawatt Installed)
North Carolina35,0003,50062,000
South Carolina15,2001,52027,000
West Virginia6,30063011,000

For rooftop installations, the jobs per megawatt would tend to exceed 18, since rooftop jobs are smaller and more labor-intensive than the 2016 U.S. mix of utility-scale solar (10,000 megawatts) and rooftop solar.  On the other hand, as the rooftop solar industry grows to meet the NREL potential, economies of scale should also come into play, enabling firms to sell and install more panels in less time.  So on balance, 18 jobs per megawatt, and 50,000 jobs for ten years, seems like a good ballpark estimate.

The NREL report noted that “In practice, the integration of a significant quantity of rooftop solar into the national portfolio of generation capacity would require a flexible grid, supporting infrastructure, and a suite of enabling technologies.”

Will Driscoll is a writer and analyst.  Previously he conducted environmental analyses for EPA, as a project manager for ICF Consulting.  He earned a master’s degree in economics and policy from Princeton. Read more of Will’s work at: https://savetheclimateblog.wordpress.com/

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