Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Illinois lags on solar jobs

By Jamey Dunn

A new study found Illinois is not keeping up with some neighboring states on job creation in the solar power industry.

The study to take stock of jobs created by the expansion of solar power across the country was conducted by the Solar Foundation, a non-profit group that funds solar research; Green LMI , which specializes in predicting the future of labor markets; and Cornell University .

According to the report, as of August 2010, more than 93,000 people nationwide work in solar power, and half of companies in that field expect to hire new employees in the next year. Those jobs include manufacturing, installation and sales. There are solar companies in every state, but the industry is mainly concentrated in the western and northeastern parts of the country. California leads the nation with 30 percent of all solar related businesses and more than 36,000 solar jobs.

Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio all made it into the report’s top 20 states for solar job creation, but Illinois did not.

According to the research, Illinois has about 530 solar-related jobs with a projected growth to nearly 700 jobs by 2011. That compares with Indiana — ranked 10th in the country for solar employment and growth — with more than 1,600 jobs and projected growth to more than 1,800 by 2011.

Environment Illinois says the General Assembly can take steps to help Illinois catch up with its neighbors in the solar sector. Miranda Carter, a field associate with Environment Illinois, said a few key changes could help the state keep pace.

One plan is to allow larger solar operations to sell extra power that they create back to utilities. Now, smaller operations, such as private residences and small business, can generate power with solar panels or a wind turbine and sell back what they don’t use under a policy called net metering. Carter said larger operations, including warehouses and big-box stores, such as Walmart, need to be included in the policy.

Carter said 16 other states allow those larger energy producers to sell their surplus power. “Illinois will lose business to those states unless we change the law. Illinois is home to many flat-roofed industrial and commercial space that is ideal for solar installation, but these companies will not proceed unless they get the full worth of the energy they produce.”

She said reworking the Property Assessed Clean Energy Program (PACE) would also help to expand solar power in Illinois. Such programs allow homeowners nationwide to get municipal bonds to make their homes more energy efficient or install alternative energy improvements, such as solar panels. They pay off the loan with their future energy savings. “The price or upfront cost is what is so difficult for people,” Carter said.

However, Sen. Mike Jacobs, chair of the Senate Energy Committee, said solar power needs to be more reliable before the state starts setting such policies or subsidizing it. “I am still waiting for that big new idea that’s really going to get this off the ground."

Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline, added, “Really I just think that we need to make sure that we take care of our current employers before we go chasing new ones.”

Jacobs said he is concerned about the expense, which could be associated with expanding net metering and PACE in Illinois. “Both of those put their hands in the pocket of consumers,” said Jacobs. “We may be behind a little on solar, but I don’t view that as a bad thing. Frankly it is very expensive to the customer. And somebody’s got to pay for this.”

Check back tomorrow for a report on Illinois job creation and development in the wind power sector.


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