The solar industry added over 31,000 jobs in 2014, bringing its total to over 173,800. It was an almost 22% jump, while overall U.S. jobs grew 1.1%. And solar expects 36,000 more jobs, for a total of 210,096, by the end of 2015.
More people work in solar than in coal mining (which supports 93,185 jobs) and solar installers saw almost twice the growth of the sum of oil and gas pipeline builders (10,529) and crude oil and natural gas producers (8,688) last year. But are utilities getting in on the opportunity?
“If homes and businesses have a combination of efficiency and renewables and storage and EV-to-grid and maybe small fuel cells, those homes and businesses are basically self-sufficient,” EPCOR Utilities Board Member Bob Foster noted recently. “But somebody still has to integrate that. It is a great role for today’s utilities. I just don’t see them moving in that direction.”
The Solar Foundation’s (TSF) National Solar Jobs Census 2014 suggests Foster is right. Its 276,376 business survey included data from over 40 utilities and their project development subsidiaries, but turned up too little utility-specific activity for TSF President Andrea Luecke to talk about substantively with Utility Dive.
Yet the TSF study definitively demonstrates “both aggressive hiring and clear optimism among U.S. solar companies,” said VP Philip Jordan of BW Research Partnership, TSF’s research partner.
Despite solar providing 1.3% of all new U.S. jobs in 2014, being the single biggest new U.S. jobs creator, and doubling its installation sector since 2010, utilities seem to be uncertain about getting involved in it.
How utilities react
“Utilities move through three stages of development as renewable energy deployment increases in their service territories,” according to "How Renewable Energy Is Reshaping the Utility Hierarchy," a report from the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA).
“Utilities preserve their traditional organizational structures,” the survey of 14 electric utilities showed, when there is low demand for distributed solar interconnections and renewables mandates can be met with central station projects.
As distributed solar interconnection demand increases, utilities reorganize existing staff and “focus their efforts by forming dedicated renewable energy groups.” As expertise in the organization grows, the utility will become proactive, integrating renewables into strategic planning and developing new business models.
“With high numbers of interconnections of both utility-scale and distributed resources,” SEPA found, renewables “become an integral component” of the utility business model. The utility discovers “business opportunities with cost-competitive pricing, and their procurement [of renewables] hardly differs from that of other resources.”
These are not so much discreet stages of development as parts of a continuum, explained SEPA Research Analyst and report co-author Ryan Edge. “At first, utilities are reactive. Then they become more proactive. And, finally, they come to see renewables as just another resource.”
Utilities on the continuum
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is constrained, like many municipal utilities, by public hiring practices, according to Director of Efficiency and Solar David Jacot.
“We have about 8 people that process rebate applications and a team of about 25 planners and electrical field service representatives that do interconnects, among their other responsibilities,” he said.
But the bulk of the jobs being created by the Los Angeles solar market are not at LADWP.
“They are a footnote,” Jacot said, “The utility’s participation allows our trade allies in solar’s private sector to have the big job opportunities and other benefits.”
At San Diego Gas and Electric, “the biggest obstacle to the growth of jobs in solar is today’s rate structure,” said VP Jim Avery.
“As soon as there is an incentive in the rate structure to install solar right, it would create the integration of solar with batteries," he said. "That would double the jobs. The job growth in solar is wonderful but it is half what it could be.”
“Solar, and particularly distributed generation,” TSF’s numbers suggest and SEPA’s study confirms, “drive more full-time equivalents [at utilities] than any other renewable generating resource.”
Solar provides an average of 41 full time equivalent (FTE) jobs per 100 megawatts (MW). The average across all renewables is 12 FTEs per 100 MWs.
“Distributed generation energy innovation didn’t exist as a job category at utilities five years ago,” Edge noted. “It appeared two years ago and is still growing.”
As in the private sector, installation’s customer service, billing, and interconnection drive the bulk of the employment activity. Distributed solar represents 98% of all utility interconnection activity and “interconnection is the biggest driver of renewables group hiring at utilities,” said Edge.
Half or more of the jobs in renewables at utilities are filled by candidates from within the organization, SEPA found. Outside contractors tend to be necessary for utility scale undertakings, especially in operations and maintenance. Some utilities use outside contractors to fill as many as 30% of open positions while others use none, “reflecting different organizational cultures, resource needs, and company policies.”
Embracing change at Tucson Electric Power
The job impact on the 2,000 person Tucson Electric Power (TEP) workforce has been “tremendous,” said Sr. Director Carmine Tilghman.
“I now have a renewable energy department that we did not have before,” he said.
In its 2,000 MW generation mix, TEP has 300 MW of utility-scale renewables (75% of it is solar), and 120 MW of distributed generation, largely in 7,500 rooftop solar interconnections.
TEP has added distribution engineers to manage interconnections and “we just created the position of renewable energy forecasting analyst to help integrate our solar and wind into traditional wholesale marketing, forecasting, and planning,” Tilghman said.
All but three or four of TEP’s 30 departments have been impacted.
“That goes all the way to operations, transmission, and generation," Tilghman said. "Regulatory has more personnel to handle the increased load in renewable energy dockets. Accountants have to deal with a whole new way of accounting. IT departments are now managing renewable energy related programs, websites, and communications data. Energy Management System is integrating a whole new set of communications networks.”
Through indirect and induced impacts, the U.S. solar industry supports 700,000 jobs, according to TSF. TEP’s solar efforts have long supported local construction industries, solar installers, engineering firms, and environmental firms, Tilghman said. More recently, though, it has taken on active management of whole projects, subcontracting only for highly specialized or unskilled services.
For the new rooftop program just approved by Arizona regulators, “the actual physical installation and O&M will be done by local vendors,” Tilghman said. But about 20 TEP departments got new employees or new development and design work for existing employees.
“If a utility makes the decision to be actively engaged and invest shareholder money, it either has to learn how to do it or hire somebody who knows how,” Tilghman said. “They owe it to themselves to spend the money to ensure they have the internal resources.”
As solar and other renewables become a bigger part of utilities’ generating portfolios, they also disrupt utilities’ business practices. There is, as yet, inadequate data on the impacts, SEPA concluded. But as more utilities reach that third stage of maturity and renewables become the new normal, it is likely the renewables groups within utilities will become more influential and help utilities adapt to changes in regulation, mandates, and customer attitudes.
Kicker: The investment tax credit
Most solar market analyses forecast record growth and increasing employment through the end of 2016, when the 30% federal investment tax credit will expire. But if the ITC is not extended, TSF notes, “Solar employment growth is likely to slow or may even experience significant job losses.”