Calif.’s Solar Industry Employs More People than State’s Utilities

It’s widely known that the solar industry is creating a lot of jobs, but some figures presented at an energy conference yesterday put that job performance in a new light.

The California solar industry now employs almost 55,000 people, more than the state’s three major utilities — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (about 20,000), Southern California Edison (more than 13,600) and San Diego Gas & Electric (about 5,000). That’s a utility job roll of about 38,600.

Furthermore, the number of people employed by the country’s largest solar installer, SolarCity, far exceeds that of other technology companies based in or near Silicon Valley that started around the same time.

SolarCity, the country’s largest solar installer and based in the San Francisco Bay Area, employs more than 9,000 people. Meanwhile, Twitter, one of the most well-known social media companies, employs 3,600. Twilio, a cloud computing company, employs about 300, while Dropbox, an online storage firm, employs 977 people.

The numbers were compiled from public records by Nancy Pfund, a clean technology investor who spoke at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy conference, which is being held this week outside Washington, D.C. She was onstage interviewing Lyndon Rive, the CEO of SolarCity. Pfund is a member of SolarCity’s board of directors.

Rive pointed out that the company employs more people because it is not just creating computer products but is in the manpower-intensive business of installing equipment on thousands of roofs.

The company has 60 warehouses in the 15 states in which it operates, Rive said.

The numbers were slightly misleading — Pfund claimed that each of the tech companies started in the same year of 2006, while in fact Twilio and Dropbox started a year later, in 2007 — but it jives with other data that show solar creating lots of jobs.

Across the country, jobs in the solar industry grew last year by 22 percent to 174,000 jobs, according to a study by the Solar Foundation. It added employment last year at a rate almost 20 times faster than the overall economy.

Pfund also presented other promising numbers for solar, such as that solar’s portion of new power generation in the United States has climbed steeply, from less than 5 percent in 2009 to close to 35 percent in the third quarter of 2014.

Rive called it “a mind-blowing chart” because it indicated, at the very least, that within several decades, solar will make up a huge slice of the nation’s power mix.

Rive added that the jobs figures are a reason why the federal government should extend the solar production tax credit, which is scheduled to drop from 30 to 10 percent at the end of 2016. Ending the tax credit “will kill that growth trajectory,” he said.

He pointed out that the oil industry gets far more government support than solar but didn’t call for those to be discontinued. Instead, he said, both should keep their subsidies.